Top national stories of the year
1. Passing the pandemic test
Korea was one of the first countries to be hit by the Covid-19 pandemic after China and is high atop the list of nations that controlled it best. It never imposed a national lockdown or even local ones. At certain points, companies told employees to work from home, but essential workers continued to keep the office lights on. For the past 11 months, restaurants were open — movie theaters, too — mask-wearing was embraced and contact tracing managed to successfully control clusters. As of Dec. 29, 879 people died and only 59,773 got sick — a fraction of the outbreak suffered elsewhere. In November, however, cases started spreading in ways that evaded contact tracing. Daily cases rose to a record high 1,241 on Christmas Eve and the government considered raising social distancing measures to their highest level — although still short of a European-style lockdown. Korea was late to order vaccines, although it claimed to have ordered enough for the whole population the last week of the year.
2. Taking on the justice system
President Moon Jae-in has never forgiven the prosecutors of the criminal justice system for the death of his political mentor, former President Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide while being probed by the state for allegedly receiving bribes from a businessman. Moon vowed to “reform” the prosecution — to make it less political and reduce its powers — and succeeded by establishing a new body to investigate corruption among high-level government servants. His handpicked top prosecutor, Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, threw a wrench in those plans by starting investigations of Moon’s own loyalists, including the short-lived former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. Moon’s war against the prosecution became a war against Yoon, who was hounded to quit by Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae before she stepped down recently. That front-page battle of titans made Yoon a popular figure — and a frontrunner for the presidential race of 2022.
3. North blows up Kaesong office
The Moon administration’s attempt to bring a ray of sunshine into inter-Korean relations got a fillip from the unexpected bromance between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. For a while, Moon was delighted to play go-between, which allowed him three summits with Kim, including a trip to Mt. Paektu, the spiritual center of the Korean Peninsula. But a go-between gets blamed when things go wrong, as they did at Trump and Kim’s disastrous summit in Hanoi, Vietnam in February 2019. Denuclearization talks went into the trash bin along with South-North relations. And to make that abundantly clear, Kim ordered the blowing up of the two-year-old inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong on June 16. Seoul says the approximately $15 million cost of the building was lost — on top of its entire policy toward the North.
4. A mayor’s suicide
Park Won-soon, a champion of society’s vulnerable who became the longest-serving mayor of Korea’s capital and was expected to run for president in 2022, took his own life on July 9 at the age of 64 — before news of his less compassionate side got out.
On July 8, a former secretary filed a sexual harassment complaint claiming Park made unsolicited sexual advances for more than four years — including the sending of late-night selfies and lewd text messages — and that colleagues in the Seoul Metropolitan Government went along with the harassment and ignored her calls for help.
By law, the MeToo case was automatically closed upon Park’s death. For months, police and prosecutors investigated the behavior of City Hall staffers and whether the secretary’s complaint to the police was leaked to the late mayor ahead of his fatal decision, but no one has been charged yet. On the secretary’s request, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea is investigating the sexual harassment allegations.
In a separate case, former Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don stepped down last April after admitting he groped an employee at the Busan Metropolitan Government the previous month. Prosecutors are investigating. Both Park and Oh were members of the ruling Democratic Party.
5. Online sex-trafficking rings busted
A year after the global MeToo movement shook up Korean society with revelations of rampant sexual abuse by men in power, the country again found itself reeling at the discovery of several of the biggest online sex-trafficking rings in its history.
Known as the “Nth rooms,” these rings operated through the encrypted Telegram messaging app, and involved the blackmailing of possibly more than 100 women — including over two dozen minors — into providing sexually explicit photographs and videos of themselves. The content was then allegedly sold to tens of thousands of users on Telegram chatrooms through cryptocurrency transactions. Prices ranged from $200 to $1,200 for content that authorities described as being obtained through “digital slavery.”
The revelations sparked immense public outcry, while online petitions gathered millions of signatures and prompted authorities to reveal identities of key perpetrators. The most prolific were Cho Ju-bin and his accomplices, who now face jail sentences that are unprecedented for sex crimes in Korea. Cho was sentenced to 40 years in prison by a district court in November. The uproar also spurred the government to toughen laws on the growing epidemic of digital sex crimes. The response has still failed to satisfy many of those clamoring for a justice system that can properly deter sex crimes.
6. Champion accused of exploitation
Lee Yong-soo, an elderly survivor of the Japanese military’s wartime sexual slavery, made headlines with her bombshell allegations in May that the victims, also known as “comfort women,” had been exploited for decades by a civic group and activist-turned-lawmaker Yoon Mee-hyang. Lee in press conferences expressed her skepticism about the transparency and integrity of the civic group, the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, headed by Yoon before she was elected as a proportional lawmaker of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) in April.
Yoon denied the allegations, including that she had misappropriated funds intended to help the survivors, and took her National Assembly seat despite public outcry at the end of May. In June, Sohn Young-mi, the head of a shelter for survivors run by the council in Mapo District, western Seoul, died of apparent suicide, which some linked to the ongoing scandal. The Seoul Western District Prosecutors’ Office in September indicted Yoon on eight charges including fraud, embezzlement and breach of trust. The DP suspended Yoon’s party membership the same month. Her attorneys again denied all charges against Yoon during her first trial at the Seoul Western District Court in November.
7. Tyranny of the majority
The pendulum of power swings regularly in Korea — but some worry it has swung too far.
In the first general election since the removal of conservative President Park Geun-hye in 2017 for corruption and abuse of power, the liberal DP of President Moon Jae-in won a historic landslide on April 15. As of Dec. 21, the DP had 174 lawmakers in the 300-member National Assembly and the conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP) had only 103.
Through an alliance with the Open Minjoo Party, the DP controls nearly three-fifth of the legislature — the first time any single political group has such power since Korea introduced its current political system in 1987. The PPP has just enough lawmakers to block a constitutional amendment.
Using its supermajority, the DP grabbed the chairmanships of all standing committees of the Assembly and has railroaded through contentious bills. The DP passed bills strengthening tenants’ rights without opposition support, three “fair economy” bills and major changes to powerful state agencies like the National Intelligence Service. It revised a law governing the new Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials, effectively taking away the opposition’s veto power in the process of appointing its first head. “There are many kinds of majority rule that include agreements and compromises,” said Choi Jang-Jip, emeritus professor of political science at Korea University. “When majority rule becomes an indiscriminate principle for a decision, that is no more than tyranny.”
8. Death on water remains a mystery
In an already tense year for relations on the peninsula, the South Korean public was shocked in September when news broke that a fisheries official from the South had disappeared from a boat near the maritime border in the Yellow Sea, before being discovered and shot dead by a North Korean patrol who then burned his body at sea.
Amid initial fears of a fresh diplomatic crisis, the circumstances of the man’s disappearance from the boat at first remained murky. The South Korean government concluded the man was attempting to defect to the North — although his family strongly rejected that determination. Military officials suggested the North’s orders to shoot the man may have been a result of the regime’s acute fear of Covid-19 being introduced via the border. The story took another surprising twist when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un broke a monthslong silence to publicly apologize and take responsibility for the incident — a notable act from a regime known for deifying its leaders. The rare apology prompted speculation of a possible thaw in the recent icy relations between the two countries.
9. Doctors go on strike
Thousands of doctors across the nation went on strike last summer to protest the government’s proposed medical reforms, raising fears of a staffing void as the country was seeing 300 to 400 new cases of the coronavirus a day. The legislative package of reforms included a 4,000-student increase in medical school admissions over the next decade, establishing a public medical school and extending national health insurance coverage to include traditional Korean medicine and expanding remote medical services.
The walkout didn’t cause any serious mayhem on frontline efforts to treat Covid-19 patients, and after two weeks, the Korean Medical Association, which led the protests, struck an agreement with the Ministry of Health and Welfare to suspend the reform effort until the coronavirus crisis subsides. Yet medical students, who also joined the strike, rejected the truce, saying their views weren’t sufficiently reflected. Nearly 85 percent of those in their last year of medical training missed the deadline to sign up for the state-administered medical licensing exam.
The students’ strike, however, soon lost steam. In late September, they announced they were willing to take the test, but the government refused to allow them to take the exam, saying they had already postponed the deadline twice for them while they were on strike. As a result, only 423 out of 3,172 eligible students took the test, of whom 365 ultimately passed. The government earlier this month hinted at the possibility of holding another licensing exam for those students.
10. Record rainfall across peninsula
Record rainfall battered the Korean Peninsula during an unusually long typhoon season, causing at least 38 deaths across the country, wrecking farm fields and closing waterfront areas and bridges in Seoul as waterways surged beyond their banks. Korea’s 54-day rainy season ended up being the longest ever, surpassing the 49-day streak in 2013. Several people were killed in Busan after becoming trapped in an inundated underpass, while deadly landslides and flooding were reported elsewhere in the country. In Gangwon, a half-dozen people were swept over a dam during a rescue operation, resulting in at least five deaths, with the last person missing as of Dec. 21. Still, most experts believe the damage was even more severe in North Korea, at least in terms of agriculture. The year 2020 was already shaping up into a rough one for the regime’s economy, with the dual impacts of sanctions and border shutdowns in the wake of the pandemic. The country’s perennial food insecurity has likely been exacerbated by the widespread crop losses in its most agriculturally productive regions, which some analysts have suggested may continue to play a role in inter-Korean relations in 2021, potentially pushing the chronically malnourished nation to return to dialogue with the South.