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The stories that drove the news in 2019

An appointment fiasco, trade friction with Japan and 5G led the news as a decade came to a close

Dec 31,2019
Above: Justice Minister Cho Kuk announces measures to reform the prosecution on Oct. 14. Cho announced his resignation as justice minister that same afternoon after 35 days on the job. Right: Conservatives rally against Cho Kuk in Gwanghwamun in central Seoul, top, while pro-Cho liberals rally in Seocho District, southern Seoul, near the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, bottom. [YONHAP]
1. A presidency’s tipping point

After winning a “snap election” in 2017, President Moon Jae-in inspired hope by promising “a country that we have never had” in his inaugural speech - specifically, an end to the culture of privilege and corruption that brought down his predecessor, the impeached and removed President Park Geun-hye. He positioned himself as a president for underdogs, like minimum-wage workers.

On Sept. 9, Moon appointed a new justice minister - Cho Kuk, a former student activist who worked as his senior presidential secretary for civil affairs - and the president’s reputation as a champion of social justice started to crumble. Cho was described as an upright citizen, but journalists quickly found his family had suspiciously complicated finances. The most damning revelation was that the academic successes of Cho’s daughter, who is in medical school, seemed anything but legit. She received scholarships despite bad grades, earned an award from the president of a university where her mother was a faculty member, and was cited as co-author of a published scientific research paper - after a two-week internship as a high school student.

Cho’s reek of privilege and seemingly relentless bending of the rules infuriated Koreans across the spectrum, with special anger flaring on campuses. The scandal was particularly jarring since Cho was entrusted with a major reform of the criminal justice system - even after his own wife was indicted for allegedly forging their daughter’s academic award. Moon stuck doggedly by his appointment, but on Oct. 14, Cho resigned - with his boss’s halo in pieces.



2. Japan declares war on trade

When Moon Jae-in became president in May 2017, he declared a “two-track” policy for relations with Japan: emotive historical issues would not be allowed to affect economics and trade. But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is more of a one-track kind of guy. In July, Japan announced unilateral restrictions on exports of three industrial components critical to Korean makers of semiconductors and displays - retaliation for Moon’s walking away from a 2016 agreement to compensate women forced into sexual slavery during World War II and his failure to deal with Korean Supreme Court verdicts in November and December 2018 ordering Japanese companies to pay Koreans forced to work for them during the colonial period. Korea was then struck off Japan’s so-called white list of major trading partners. (Japan claims a 1965 treaty dealt with all damage claims from the past.) After the same kind of economic retaliation by China for the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile battery in 2017, Korea is realizing that the international rules that once kept trade and economics sacrosanct mean little in the age of Abe, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. Moon angrily did his own blurring of economic and diplomatic issues by threatening to leave an intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, but relented at the last minute. Seoul hopes to solve the trade issues through diplomacy.



3. No deal on denuclearization

While U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un crossed paths twice and exchanged a flurry of letters this year, denuclearization negotiations failed to make any ground.

A highly anticipated second North-U.S. summit between Kim and Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended abruptly without a deal on Feb. 28 after the two sides failed to narrow differences on the scope of denuclearization for sanctions relief.

North Korea resumed short-range missile launches from May and conducted new weapons tests including a new super-large multiple rocket launcher.

On June 30, Kim and Trump reunited for an impromptu third meeting at the demilitarized zone (DMZ), marking the first time a sitting U.S. president crossed the inter-Korean border to the North. During their informal meeting, the two sides agreed to resume working-level talks, but talks in Sweden between top nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun and his North Korean counterpart Kim Myong-gil on Oct. 4 broke off, and Pyongyang accused Washington of inflexibility.



4. Deaths on the Danube

The country was mired in tragedy in late May after a sightseeing boat, the Hableany, carrying 33 Korean tourists and two Hungarian crew members, capsized on the Danube River in Budapest. The accident left 27 dead and one Korean still missing. On the evening of May 29, Swiss-operated cruise ship, the Viking Sigyn, collided with the smaller Hableany, which sank within a few seconds near the Margaret Bridge in the worst accident on the Danube in decades. Local rescue workers recovered 14 people, but seven were immediately confirmed dead. An extensive search unfolded in the following weeks with cooperation between the Korean and Hungarian governments who set up a joint rescue team to search for the missing bodies. Divers from the Sewol ferry disaster provided assistance to the rescue efforts. The Hableany was salvaged from the Danube River on June 11.

A four-month probe into the case wrapped up in October, and Hungarian police referred to the prosecution Yuriy C., the Ukrainian captain of the Viking Sigyn, recommending indictment for negligence and failure to take appropriate steps to rescue the passengers. Under Hungarian law, he could face a prison term of up to 13 years if convicted.



5. Burning Sun scandal shocks K-pop

Korea’s entertainment world was shaken to its core in 2019 after a number of prominent K-pop stars became embroiled in one of the biggest sex scandals to hit the industry, revolving around a nightclub in Seoul known as Burning Sun.

What began as one man’s allegations that he was assaulted at the club in January quickly evolved into a massive police investigation into Burning Sun’s links to prostitution and drug trafficking, ensnaring one of its directors, boy band Big Bang’s Seungri, who is now on trial for soliciting prostitutes to entertain foreign investors.

A subsequent expose of the contents of a KakaoTalk chat room between Seungri and a host of fellow entertainers brought the focus of the scandal onto sex crimes when it was revealed singer Jung Joon-young had shared - without consent - videos of himself having sex with women, which eventually led to Jung’s arrest in March.

A handful of other implicated celebrities were also brought down by the revelations, including Choi Jong-hoon, a former member of the band FT Island, who was sentenced to five years in prison in November.

In addition to highlighting a culture that sexually objectifies women, the scandal also shed light on corruption in law enforcement with allegations that the club had received protection from a number of key figures in the police.



6. Asiana on the block

Asiana Airlines was sold 31 years after its founding as debts piled up and as accounting irregularities finally tipped the carrier from barely muddling through to no longer viable.

A bidding contest was initiated in April after Korea Development Bank, Asiana’s main creditor and a major shareholder, refused to throw the airline a 500-billion-won ($432.8-million) lifeline.

By November, one consortium was left standing: HDC Hyundai Development and Mirae Asset Daewoo. It was selected over a consortium led by Aekyung Group, a cosmetics conglomerate that operates Jeju Air, and the Korea Corporate Governance Improvement fund.

Some last-minute haggling, over price and a capping on possible liabilities related to a Fair Trade Commission fine, seemed to threaten the close, but the stock purchase agreement finalizing the deal was signed in the last week of 2019.

In the transaction, Kumho Industrial sold its 30.77 percent stake to the consortium for 322.8 billion won. New shares will also be issued in order to shore up the airline’s balance sheet, taking the full purchase price to 2.5 trillion won.

Asiana’s six subsidiaries, which include budget airlines Air Busan, Air Seoul and Asiana IDT, are included in the transaction.



7. War on property prices continues

The Moon Jae-in administration continued to roll out measures to control property prices and to fight speculation, extending a campaign that began one month after inauguration in June 2017.

Just before the end of the year, on Dec. 16, another round of such policies was introduced, taking the total to 18.

It was a veritable laundry list, the government intervening in the market in almost every possible way. In areas considered speculative or overheated, which now includes all of Seoul, limits were place on mortgages for properties valued at more than 1.5 billion won.

Loan-to-value rations were lowered from 40 percent to 20 percent for properties valued above 900 billion won, while the assessed-value calculation was adjusted for these properties. The government also increased the rate for the comprehensive real estate tax.

On the same day, the Blue House suggested that all administration staff should sell all but one property, to demonstrate their commitment to cooling the market and their willingness to shun speculation.

Financial Services Commission Eun Sung-soo and Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki announced their participation.

Despite earlier efforts, prices rose through early December as young people scrambled for apartments on concern that the measures will limit supply and lead to price rises anyhow. The policies seem to have fueled the frenzy they were supposed to address.



8. Abortion ban lifted

On April 11, the Constitutional Court ruled a decades-old law that made abortion a crime punishable for up to two years unconstitutional, highlighting a major victory for women’s rights activists who had campaigned for the law’s repeal. The court gave the National Assembly until the last day of 2020 to revise the Criminal Act that punishes both mothers for having abortions and doctors for performing the procedures, saying that if lawmakers fail to meet the deadline, the abortion ban will automatically become null on Jan. 1, 2021.

The ban was introduced in 1953, when the country first established the Criminal Act. In the months since the verdict, the National Assembly barely made any advancements on the issue as lawmakers locked horns over other bills and political scandals, meaning the ban still remains in place.

Under Korean law, abortions are only allowed if either the mother or father suffers from a genetic mental disability or a physical or infectious disease, in cases of rape or incest, or if the pregnancy threatens the health of the mother. Despite the ban, however, abortion remains widespread and is carried out in the shadows.



9. Has the 5G era really started?

After being promised that life as we know it would never be the same, Korea finally got 5G - and the bitching began.

The inauguration was filled with drama. 5G’s official start was planned for April 5 with the launch of Samsung Electronics’ first 5G-capable phone, the Galaxy S10 5G. But Verizon in the United States sneakily decided to launch its 5G service a week early. SK Telecom, KT and LG U+ switched on the high-speed connections to a selected pool of users at 11 p.m. on April 3 - 55 minutes ahead of Verizon. Korea won the race.

The dust had barely settled before users started complaining that 5G connections were spotty underground and even indoors. One local survey conducted by three civic groups in October showed that 76.6 percent of 5G users said they were dissatisfied. But as of November, the number of 5G network subscribers surpassed 4 million, or 8 percent of all Korean mobile subscribers.



10. Wildfires in Gangwon

While California may have made the most headlines for its wildfires this year, Korea was unfortunately unable to escape the devastating disasters and faced a deadly wildfire of its own in April.

Fires that began in three different locations in Gangwon on April 4 ripped through the mountainous northeastern province, killing two and leading to the evacuation of more than 4,000 residents.

Some 640 homes belonging to nearly 1,500 people were destroyed, and thousands of fire fighters from all over the country were mobilized to fight the flames, which were fully extinguished by April 6.

After separate fires began in Inje County, Goseong County and Gangneung, flames spread to the nearby cities of Sokcho and Donghae, burning 2,872 hectares (7,097 acres) of forest in total.

Following the incident, the government declared the areas as special disaster zones, which entitled residents to receive financial, administrative and medical support.

Local authorities believe the fire that started in Goseong had the biggest impact.

It ignited after an electric wire on a telephone pole in front of a gas station caught fire. The state-run Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco), which erected and managed the telephone pole, said it appeared that the wind had blown something onto the electric wire which caused the initial spark. Winds were also to blame for the speedy spread of the wildfire.

Kepco has so far provided at least 12.3 billion won ($10.5 million) in compensation to Gangwon residents and in November vowed to add more to its budget. After months of investigation, the police referred the case to prosecutors last month with the recommendation to indict nine people, including seven Kepco employees, largely on allegations related to botched management.


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