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Exporting bottled tap water: Would you sip Seoul's finest?

The South Korean capital is proud of its drinking water. But can it make a buck bottling it and exporting it abroad when many Koreans won't even drink it?

Tap water 2013 06 03Enlarge
(Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

EDITOR'S NOTE, June 4, 2013: Since this story was published, the Seoul municipal government has clarified that it currently has no plans to export "Arisu" water abroad, since South Korea's Drinking Water Act prohibits the sale of tap water. 

SEOUL, South Korea — The Seoul municipal government is considering exporting its tap water as part of efforts to promote its high-quality drinking water, officials told Yonhap newswire Monday.

Apart from flowing out of faucet in the homes of 10 million citizens here, the city produces some 8 million 350-milliliter (12 ounce) bottles of tap water per year and supplies them to the Presidential Office and various international conferences in Seoul for free.

The Office of Waterworks under the Seoul Metropolitan Government is weighing the sale of "Arisu," the name given to the city's drinking water, in overseas markets after blind tests have confirmed its good taste and high quality, according to the officials.

Seoul is home to some of the world's most sophisticated water purification systems, a success that helps its image as a wired and smart hub.

The South Korean government takes pride in this label. It often attempts to sell the country overseas — either through promoting K-pop music, film, electronics, fiery food, or in this case, water.

The city would first target China and East Asian countries, and may plan to further expand its market.

"Arisu tastes even better now as we have adopted the advanced ozone and granular activated carbon purification technology that minimizes the effects of taste-altering and odor-inducing substances, including the chlorine odor," said Kim Hyung-kyu, of the city's waterworks management department.

But it may be more than foreign consumers that need convincing.

Many Koreans themselves don't drink water from the tap because they think it's dirty.

Over the past few years, city officials have launched a handful of campaigns to convince citizens that Seoul's water is drinkable.

If South Koreans are nervous about their own water, it's not clear whether the city government will be able to convince the residents of China that Seoul's finest is a healthy alternative to other bottled water.

Still, officials say Arisu meets all 155 quality evaluation items recommended by the World Health Organization for drinking water. The US-based National Science Foundation International and global standard certifier UL approve it too.

"To make inroads into foreign markets, we plan to revise a local law that bans selling the water," Kim said. "We expect the bottled water to help promote not only the product itself but also the city's know-how for drinking water treatment."

The city had reviewed a plan to sell the tap water in the local market but decided against it out of concern that such a move could be misunderstood as a precursor to the privatization of the waterworks management.

Some commentators, however, have criticized the government's overseas marketing efforts as zealous, bureaucratically rigid, and carrying a nationalistic tinge.

The Wall Street Journal reported on May 21, for instance, that the government's campaign of globalizing Korean cuisine in North American restaurants has largely failed.

Some observers expect Seoul's water plan could see a similar fate, depending on how municipal government carries it out.

Yonhap and Geoffrey Cain reported from Seoul.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/south-korea/130603/seoul-bottled-tap-water-export

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