The top 10 news stories of 2018

Summits between Koreas bring hope, BTS prompts pride, jobs cause worries

Dec 31,2018
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, hold hands at the May 1 Stadium on Sept. 19. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
1. South and North feel détente

In an address delivered on Jan. 1, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for détente with South Korea — pivoting from years of ever-scarier nuclear and long-range missile tests. Five weeks later, athletes from both Koreas marched together into the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. That paved the way to no less than three inter-Korean summits between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim’s unprecedented meeting in Singapore on June 12 with U.S. President Donald Trump.

The world drew a sigh of relief that Kim and Trump were no longer insulting each other and talking about the nuclear buttons on their desks. But summit pageantry was quickly undermined by the hard realities that have made the North Korean nuclear threat uncontained for nearly a quarter century. Washington refuses to spare the rod of sanctions, although it did cancel or reduce military training exercises as demanded by Pyongyang. North Korea offers symbols of denuclearization, like the shutting down of a nuclear weapons testing site, without taking serious steps like detailing its nuclear arsenal. Seoul signed two declarations with Pyongyang to cooperate in infrastructure and military issues, but had less luck as a mediator in the nuclear negotiations. As the year ended, that impasse only seemed to be getting more settled. What everyone feared the most was a missile test by Pyongyang — which would be the first since late 2017, a few weeks before Kim called for détente — and a return to the dark days of taunts and nuclear threats.

2. Olympics offer a chance to talk

The 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and Paralympics kicked off on Feb. 9 with a dramatic opening ceremony that saw flocks of drones take to the sky above the stadium as North and South Korea jointly carried the Olympic torch. The Games proved a success both inside and outside the arena, with Team Korea taking surprise medals in curling and sliding sports and continuing its long success on ice. Yun Sung-bin, Choi Min-jeong and Team Kim gave some of Korea’s most memorable performances, while U.S. snowboarder Chloe Kim broke records at her Olympic debut to become the Games’ biggest star.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong attended the Games on behalf of her brother, kick-starting a year of extraordinary diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula that ultimately led to three inter-Korean summits and a U.S.-North Korea summit. The Olympics also saw the two Koreas form a joint ice hockey team, the first inter-Korean joint team since 1991.

3. BTS becomes global sensation

K-pop act BTS’s winning streak of popularity proved even stronger this year, with the seven members taking Korean music higher than ever.

New records included being the first Korean band to perform at New York’s Citi Field, giving a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September and having their documentary sell over 310,000 tickets within just two days of release in November.
BTS began making global success from early 2017, signaling a successful step into the global stage, with the Top Social Artist award at the Billboard Music Awards in May.

This year proved to be not just another year of celebration for the members and their fan ARMY, but a bigger one yet.

Storming both local and international music charts were this year’s new releases including “Fake Love” in May, of which the music video recently surpassed the 400 million YouTube view milestone on Dec. 16. Their album “Love Yourself: Tear” topped the Billboard 200 chart shortly after, becoming the first ever K-pop album to do so, while the song reached as high as 10th on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts.

Their most recent track “IDOL,” which came out in late August, scored as high as 11th on the Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, with the album “Love Yourself: Answer” marking itself down on the Billboard’s 200 albums chart for 15 consecutive weeks since September.

Their year was bombarded with the biggest prizes at local music awards, including the Mnet Asian Music Awards.

4. Me Too takes down giants

It all began with an interview on TV network JTBC. On Jan. 31, months after the Me Too movement ripped through Hollywood and across American society, Korea’s awakening of rampant sexual assault and harassment across sectors arrived when a prosecutor revealed on national television that she had been groped by a superior in 2010. Seo Ji-hyeon, who at the time was working at the Seoul Northern District Prosecutors’ Office, immediately raised the issue to her supervisors. She wanted him to face consequences for his actions, but they wanted to settle the case with a simple apology, which Seo never received. After then, she was increasingly criticized on her work performance, and one year later, she was transferred to a post in Yeoju, Gyeonggi. In 2015, she was sent to work in Tongyeong, a rural fishing village 200 miles away from Seoul. Seo believed she was sidelined for speaking out.

“I want to tell victims of sexual assault, it’s not your fault,” she told JTBC. “It took me eight years to realize this.” The interview sent tremors across a nation that ranked 115th out of 149 countries in the latest World Economic Forum report on gender equality. Scores of women from various sectors of society — film, music, literature and more — came forward to tell their own harrowing accounts of sexual harassment in their industries. An Hee-jung, once considered a strong liberal contender for the presidential election in 2022, was the highest-profile name taken down by Korea’s Me Too movement. His former secretary accused him of multiple counts of rape and sexual harassment. An stepped down from his South Chungcheong governor post the next day. He’s now going through trial, as does the former prosecutor who groped Seo. As the year closes, Korea’s Me Too movement has largely lost steam, but the phenomenon has awakened workplaces to change their environments, add new rules and alert employees that sexual assault will no longer be dealt with a slap on the wrist. Yet feminists say the country still has a long way to go before Korean women are treated equally.

5. An upside-down policy

Sometimes more is less.

At least that’s what the Moon Jae-in administration — and all of Korea for that matter — is starting to learn about the income-led growth policy.

The idea was relatively simple: raise wages, stimulate spending and boost the economy. A virtuous circle would be the result, and the cost of the increase would be more than paid for in the form of consumer spending.

Instead, the country has faced a vicious cycle. Higher wages have led to job losses and a slowing of growth, with small-businesses struggling to pay their bills and cutting back wherever possible.

The main income-led policy initiative is the rise in the minimum wage. It was increased 16.4 percent in 2018, and the plan is for another 10.9 percent in 2019.

The higher minimum seems to have translated directly into a stall. Hiring dropped in early 2018 from about 300,000 new jobs year on year to about 100,000. By the summer, the rate of gains was running below 10,000 year on year.

According to research from the Bank of Korea, workers who gained from the program actually ended up worse off, on average losing income as a result of the minimum wage increase. While they may have earned more per hour, reduced hours, lost jobs and a slower economy took their toll.

Even the administration is having second thoughts and has started to temper its comments on income-led growth, though its solution appears to be more help for those affected rather than backing off of wage increases.

6. BMW cars burst into flames

Authorities and the public were left flummoxed in the summer when BMW cars began bursting into flames across Korea. The spate of fires, which affected more than 40 BMW cars from a variety of models, eventually led to recalls of more than 170,000 cars this year. Incredibly, no major injuries were reported due to the burning BMWs. The situation got so bad that on Aug. 15, Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee ordered uninspected recall-subjected BMW vehicles off the road.

BMW made it clear that it believes a faulty engine part called the emission gas recirculation (EGR) module is the cause of the fires. Drivers in Korea aren’t convinced by this explanation, arguing that BMW cars around the world use the same EGR, but the fires were only an issue in Korea. On Dec. 24, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport agreed that the EGR modules are the root of the problem. The fires appear to have begun again at the end of December.

7. Yemenis arrive on Jeju Island

Fleeing a brutal civil war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, over 500 Yemenis landed on Jeju Island from late 2017 to early 2018, where they filed for asylum with the Korean government. Their arrival provoked fierce backlash from many Koreans. Protesters demanded that the asylum seekers be expelled over fears they would take jobs and receive taxpayer money. Pressured by the public’s intense reaction, immigration authorities have been reluctant to grant refugee status to the Yemenis. Only two journalists received refugee status and can stay in Korea indefinitely. Of the rest, 414 have been granted temporary residence permits for a year, after which their status will be reviewed again by the authorities. The others were either refused residence or voluntarily withdrew their asylum requests. The Justice Ministry thoroughly vetted the asylum seekers on their background and history with terrorism or drugs, and consulted a variety of experts while reviewing their asylum requests. The two journalists granted protection were judged to be highly vulnerable to persecution.

8. Gapjil returns with new villains

Gapjil, or the abuse of power by superiors, once again reared its head in Korea this year. The Cho family, the owner family of Hanjin Group and Korean Air, were at the center of this year’s scandals. Back in April, stories began circulating that Cho Hyun-min, whose infamous sister was at the center of the 2014 nut rage scandal, had thrown some sort of beverage and a glass at advertising executives. The resultant investigation exposed a string of accusations including physical and verbal abuse, tax evasion and even smuggling.

The Chos weren’t the only ones embroiled in gapjil scandals this year. In November, Celltrion Chairman Seo Jung-jin was accused of abusing flight attendants on a Korean Air flight after they wouldn’t let his employees into first class. As well as verbal abuse, Seo also reportedly wasted attendants’ time by repeatedly ordering and discarding ramyeon. The last big gapjil case of the year saw the 10-year-old daughter of then-Chosun TV President Bang Jung-oh verbally abusing and threatening to fire her driver.

9. Safety still wanting

Korea’s culture of safety showed its inadequacies again in 2018 in a surprising range of ways. The derailing of a KTX bullet train earlier this month highlighted the mismanagement that comes from political appointments at the top of public corporations. A November fire at a KT switching station knocked thousands of people and businesses offline, proving how dependent we’ve become on being online at all times.

A January fire at a nursing home killed 41 elderly patients and exposed shortcomings in sprinkler regulations. And this month, a pipe carrying hot water for heating in Goyang, Gyeonggi, burst, creating a 10-story high geyser and flooding an SUV, boiling alive its driver — proving there are some risks in life we haven’t even imagined.

10. Court rules against Japan

The Supreme Court this fall ordered Japanese companies to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during World War II, and Tokyo immediately fumed over the rulings.

Korea’s top court on Oct. 30 ordered Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to give 100 million won ($88,550) in compensation each to four Korean victims of forced labor during Japanese colonial rule.

Then, on Nov. 29, the court ordered Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay 100 to 150 million won each to five women and 80 million won each to six victims forced to work at Mitsubishi’s plants and shipyards in Hiroshima.

The court rejected Tokyo’s position that the 1965 treaty, normalizing bilateral relations with Seoul, settled all compensation matters.
Seoul also announced on Nov. 21 that it would shut down a 1 billion yen ($9 million) fund from Japan meant to support women forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II.

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