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South Korean city invests in lavish loos
June 14, 2002 - By Barbara Demick; Los Angeles Times

SUWON, South Korea — As the tourists crowd in for a better look, Lee Pil Ung opens one of the stalls of the ladies' room and, speaking through a hand-held microphone, extols the virtues of the toilet.

He demonstrates the plastic wrap that revolves to supply a fresh toilet-seat cover for every user. Then, closing the door to the stall, he points to the loudspeakers piping in chamber music and to a rack of reading material that this city supplies in its public restrooms.

"This is not just a toilet," says Lee, a volunteer tour guide who works for the city. "This is a space for culture, a space for music."

When South Korea was selected in 1996 to co-host soccer's 2002 World Cup with Japan, government officials began discussing what needed to be done to improve the infrastructure. At one planning session, one official embarrassed Suwon's mayor by asking if he had ever dared to step inside the public toilet in the park downtown.

The next day, the mayor, Shim Jae Duck, visited the park restroom. He was so horrified by its squalid condition that he declared a war on filthy toilets.

The result was a $4 million toilet-improvement campaign that has succeeded beyond anybody's wildest imagination. The public toilets have become Suwon's claim to fame, although the city (population: 1 million) on the outskirts of Seoul also boasts an 18th-century fortress and the best barbecue ribs in the South, and is one of 10 World Cup cities in the country.

Suwon might be the only city in the world (if not, certainly one of the few) that runs guided tours of its loos and has huge advertisements on its buses touting the toilets. ("Enjoy the World Heritage Fortress and Beautiful Restroom Tour," reads the blurb on the green-and-white tour buses.)