Top national stories of 2021
Korea rode the Covid-19 roller coaster in 2021, although its lows were never as bad as in other countries.
The year began shortly after the Christmas Day 2020 peak of the third wave of infections.
On Feb. 16, vaccines began. When the Delta variant started spreading here last summer, it outstripped the inoculation campaign and Korea seemed woefully behind in its vaccine purchases.
Some hustling by the government picked up the pace and more than 80 percent of the country has received two doses of a vaccine.
Having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, the government launched its "Living with Covid-19" strategies in November, relaxing social distancing regulations and promising a return to normalcy.
But that came at a cost: daily infections, which hovered around 1,000 at the beginning of the fourth wave, soared above 7,000 in mid-December, with patients in critical condition and fatalities also reaching record-highs.
Restrictions, business curfews and a vaccine pass system were adopted, although Korea has never resorted to the kind of lockdowns seen in Europe or fell into the chaos seen in the U.S.
The campaign for the presidential election is being dominated by flaws in the two main candidates' pasts — not the ideological or generational shifts that dictated elections in the past.Ruling Democratic Party (DP) candidate Lee Jae-myung and main opposition People Power Party (PPP) candidate Yoon Suk-yeol are neck and neck in polls for next March's presidential election, both weighed down by scandals and family problems.In December, Lee's son was accused of involvement in illegal gambling and prostitution. The media traced comments on a gambling website from early 2019 to mid-2020 to his son's e-mail address.
In a press conference, Lee acknowledged that his 29-year-old son had engaged in illegal gambling and apologized for "failing as a parent." Lee said his son denied the prostitution allegation. Lee is also deeply implicated in a real estate development scandal in Seongnam, the city he led as mayor.
The spouse of conservative candidate Yoon, a former prosecutor general, has admitted substantial "exaggerations" on job applications to Suwon University in 2007 and Anyang University in 2013 — a third-rail political issue in highly competitive Korea. Yoon's mother-in-law was convicted of operating a nursing hospital without proper medical qualifications and sentenced to a year in jail this month for forging a financial document for a land purchase.
Allegations of political favors and bribery in the snowballing Daejang-dong development corruption scandal resulted in two suicides and sparked a major investigation but fizzled after a special counsel probe bill failed to make progress.
The development, launched in 2015 and touted by ruling Democratic Party (DP) presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung when he was Seongnam's mayor, attracted suspicion in September after it came to light that Hwacheon Daeyu, a small asset management company, raked in a profit of 57.7 billion won ($48.3 million) on an investment of 49.95 million won — a 1 percent stake in the project.
The state prosecutors' investigation resulted in the arrest and indictment of Kim Man-bae, Hwacheon Daeyu's owner, and Yoo Dong-gyu, the Seongnam Development Corporation's former acting president, and others on charges of breach of trust and bribery.
Two employees at the Seongnam city developer were found dead in December in apparent suicides, but calls for a special counsel probe by the PPP have failed to gain traction.
Public officials linked to the state housing developer, the Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH), were accused by two civic groups in early March of using insider information at the company to purchase land on the site of a planned public housing development in the Gwangmyeong-Siheung area of Gyeonggi, sparking a far-reaching probe into the use of inside information by employees at publicly-owned developers and regional governments across the country.
The allegations led to the creation of a special task force under the prime minister's office, coordinated with the National Tax Service and Financial Services Commission, to track down individuals who borrowed money with insider knowledge of the development.
The investigation into LH also led to at least two suicides of employees linked to LH developments, and the fallout from the scandal forced Land Minister Byeon Chang-heum, a former LH president, to resign in March after just three months in his government post.
The suffering of children hit the headlines once again in 2021 with the sad tale of Jeong-in, a baby girl who was adopted and died after a brutal life of only 16 months.
As exposed by broadcaster SBS, Jeong-in was adopted in January 2020 by a couple with a 4-year-old biological daughter. The mother was an interpreter and the father worked for a broadcaster.
Jeong-in died of internal bleeding of her organs caused by external force, according to autopsy results. At the time of her death, she weighed less than when she was adopted nine months earlier.
Public outrage grew after it became clear that Jeong-in had at least three chances to escape her fate. Police received reports from her pediatrician, a worker at a day care center, as well as from a passerby, that Jeong-in might be the victim of abuse. None led to action.
Jeong-in's adoptive mother was sentenced to 35 years in prison and her adoptive father five, and lawmakers passed a bill called the Jeong-in Act toughening punishments for child abuse.
Within a month's time, Korea lost two former presidents, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo, associated with a democratic turning point — but also one of the darkest chapters of the past, the Gwangju massacre.
Former President Roh, 88, died on Oct. 26. Roh gave into nationwide street protests in 1987 to allow direct presidential elections, returning Korea to a democracy. He also normalized diplomatic ties with socialist countries.
Chun, 90, died on Nov. 23 after years of battling multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. Chun is remembered for taking power in a coup in 1979 and the brutal crackdown on protests against his rule in Gwangju in May 1980, which resulted in the deaths of at least 165 people and probably many more.
Both Roh and Chun were indicted in December 1995 for taking bribes of hundreds of millions of dollars, and for their involvement in the coup and the massacre in Gwangju. Chun was sentenced to death, which was later reduced to life imprisonment, and Roh was sentenced to 17 years in prison. They both received a presidential pardon in 1997.
Roh was given a state funeral in consideration of his apology for the brutality in Gwangju. Chun never expressed any contrition and was buried without honors.
North Korea successfully launched a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on Oct. 19.
The SLBM was fired from North Korea's eastern port city of Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province, into the East Sea.
North Korean state media confirmed the next day it was a "new type" of SLBM launched from a submarine.
It was North Korea's first SLBM test since October 2019, which was believed by South Korean and U.S. military authorities to have been conducted from an underwater launch platform.North Korea over the past year conducted a series of missile tests including launching a hypersonic missile, a newly developed anti-aircraft missile, long-range cruise missiles and train-launched ballistic missiles amid a continued impasse in denuclearization negotiations despite the start of the Joe Biden administration in January.
The two Koreas restored communications lines on July 27 after Pyongyang unilaterally severed them in June 2020. In protest of Seoul-Washington military drills, North Korea was again unresponsive to communication from August, but the hotlines were again restored on Oct. 4.
When Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, the Korean diplomatic mission in Afghanistan scrambled to flee. By Aug. 17, they were gone, along with the last Korean non-diplomat in the country.
But diplomats flew back in for a project they codenamed "Operation Miracle," or the evacuation of 390 Afghans who worked with the Korean government and their families. (One additional Afghan was rescued separately later.)
It was a harrowing operation. On Aug. 24, the group was trapped outside an airport gate for 14 hours. Eventually, the Afghans arrived in groups, the first landing in Incheon on Aug. 26. Of the newcomers, 156 were adults, 195 children — and 40 babies.
Lee Jun-seok, chief of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), stepped down from all his positions in the PPP's election campaign committee for presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol on Dec. 21.
The 36-year-old Harvard graduate made headlines in June after he was named chairman of the conservative PPP, becoming the youngest-ever leader of a mainstream party in modern Korean politics.
However, Lee has clashed with candidate Yoon over how the election campaign committee should be run. At the height of the feud in the beginning of December, Lee canceled his official activities and embarked on a personal regional tour.
Yoon and Lee reconciled in a dramatic dinner meeting in Ulsan on Dec. 3, which also brought veteran politician and so-called kingmaker Kim Chong-in on board as the general chairman overseeing the election campaign committee.
Weeks after the Ulsan reconciliation, Lee, who served as standing co-chair of the PPP election campaign committee, quit the posts after a spat with Rep. Cho Su-jin, a member of the PPP's supreme council who served as the campaign committee's public relations chief.
Cho in a campaign committee meeting refused to follow Lee's instructions, saying she only takes orders from Yoon.
Lee called out people who say they are close aides to Yoon and said in a press conference he has "no regrets whatsoever" from stepping down from the campaign.
The suicide of a female Air Force sergeant in May who suffered sexual harassment by a superior shed light on sex crimes in the military and its culture of covering up such problems.
The officer had been returning to base by car from a dinner meeting in March when she was allegedly abused in the vehicle by her male superior.Although she reported the case to her unit, officers tried to convince her to reach a private settlement with the perpetrator in order to avoid taking disciplinary action against him.
Her death, which she filmed in her room on base, led her family to submit an online petition to the Blue House demanding an investigation into her abuser and her unit.
The resulting public outcry forced the resignation of the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Lee Seong-yong and a major investigation by military prosecutors and police into the dead officer's unit.
At least 15 people have been charged for their involvement in the attempt to silence the female officer's complaint, while more Air Force officials face disciplinary action for not following sex crime reporting procedures.