Park’s impeachment leads year of bad news
When Koreans voted Park Geun-hye into the office of the presidency in 2012, they knew she was the daughter of a dictator, the late Park Chung Hee. They assumed she had evolved into a democracy-loving public figure who wanted to do as much for Korea as her strongman father did - in an entirely different way. After all, Park’s nickname among politicians was Queen of Elections for her acumen in electoral politics.
This year started poorly for Park with her ruling party’s defeat in an April general election, which led to a legislature with three powerful parties, a first for Korea. Then in October, 44 months into Park’s 60-month term, an investigation into strange dealings of a longtime presidential friend, Choi Soon-sil, revealed an entirely different Park: a president so insecure she would only talk face-to-face with a few aides; a president so unsure of her judgment she allowed Choi’s husband to advise her and Choi to edit her speeches; and a president so steeped in the ways of the dictatorial past that she allegedly called in the heads of the nation’s top companies to strong-arm money from them - a favored practice of Korean strongmen.
Choi, the daughter of a cult leader who gained influence over Park 40 years ago, was indicted for various crimes and Park was described as a co-conspirator. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people took to the streets every Saturday to demand Park resign or be ousted, rallies marked by a calm determination and none of the lunatic passion that flared in past street protests. It became Korea’s own People Power movement. On Dec. 9, Park was impeached for alleged criminal and constitutional violations and for contributing to the government’s botched rescue when the Sewol ferry capsized in April 2014, killing 304 people, mostly high school juniors. Public attention is particularly focused on that part of the case against Park. Whether she is removed from office is up to the Constitutional Court. If she is, it will be a first for Korea.
In a scandal with countless tawdry details, the biggest shock to Koreans was that their democracy hadn’t come very far. Democracy is a major part of Korean pride, along with economic development, and most people thought it was getting deeper and better over time. But it was hijacked by a psychologically fragile president with shockingly few democratic or constitutional scruples - and with a sensibility rooted in the Asiatic court of her father.
Antigraft law hurts businesses
A sweeping antigraft law took effect Sept. 28 with the aim of fundamentally changing the way Koreans do business - and cut back on the lavish entertainment and gifts that were synonymous with bribery. Named the Improper Solicitation and Graft Act - but commonly known as the Kim Young-ran Law after the former head of an anticorruption commission who authored the initial draft - the law limits meals offered to public officials to 30,000 won ($27.33), gifts to 50,000 won and wedding or funeral gifts to 100,000 won. The law includes in its definition of public officials civil servants and lawmakers but also teachers at private schools and journalists - and the spouses of people in those professions. Whether the de facto bribery has been scaled back is not yet known. But many businesses have seen sharp reductions in their revenues from restaurants and golf courses to even the beef and orchid industries.
Thaad controversy boils over
China levied unofficial sanctions on Korea, Minjoo lawmakers flew to Beijing to commiserate with leaders there and the prime minister was pelted with eggs - all in opposition to Seoul and Washington’s decision on July 9 to deploy the U.S. antiballistic missile system known as Thaad, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, to counter North Korean threats. The Ministry of National Defense later named the Korean military’s artillery base in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang, as the deployment site, resulting in protests by Seongju residents who expressed health and environmental concerns over Thaad’s powerful radar. The Defense Ministry then selected Lotte Skyhill Seongju Country Club as the new site. Its placement on the Korean Peninsula has been protested by both China and Russia, who claim the deployment will compromise their security interests.
AlphaGo vs. Lee Se-dol
The science world turned its eyes to Seoul in March as the historic man-versus-machine Go tournament between Google DeepMind’s AI algorithm AlphaGo and Korean champion Lee Se-dol had viewers at the edge of their seats.
The historic five-match Go tournament between Korean champ Lee Se-dol and AlphaGo ended with a 4-1 victory for the AI program.
Many experts predicted an AI program would not be able to beat a human when it comes to Go as it is extremely complicated and there are an incredible number of options that each player can choose while also trying to predict the other player’s moves in advance.
After the match, many professional Go players and AI experts said that AlphaGo was equipped with an infinite amount of data and Lee even praised the AI program by saying “AlphaGo played perfectly.”
Even though Lee lost the match, he won the public’s adoration with his unrelenting determination and refusal to blame others after the match. “This isn’t a defeat for humans,” he said after his third loss, “only for Lee Se-dol.”
North Korea tests nukes
North Korea’s aggression reached an all-time high in 2016, with two nuclear tests and a series of missile launches. It was the first time the North ever carried out two nuclear tests, its fourth and fifth, within a year. In response to the fourth one in January, and a subsequent ballistic missile launch, the UN Security Council hit Pyongyang in March with its strongest-ever sanctions. This, however, did not stop the North from conducting a fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9, which earned it another set of sanctions. These provocations brought inter-Korea relations to a point of tension arguably not seen since the end of the war. The Park Geun-hye government withdrew South Korean businesses from the joint Kaesong industrial complex, which resulted in a shutdown of the last vestige of business cooperation between the two governments. While the North continued its nuclear ambition, a number of North Korean workers and high ranking officials defected to the South as a result of growing pressure on overseas workers and elite diplomats to find extra sources of hard currency for the regime. A group of 13 North Korean restaurant workers in Ningbo, China, escaped en masse to the South in April. The bigger surprise came in July when the North’s deputy ambassador in London, Thae Yong-ho, defected to Seoul with his family.
Samsung’s exploding Note7s
It was supposed to be Samsung Electronics’ most ambitious phone ever. The Galaxy Note7, a waterproof “phablet” equipped with a cutting-edge iris scanner and other fancy features, debuted in August to great fanfare and sell-out preorders.
But an industry game changer instead went down in flames - literally. One by one, buyers of the phone reported cases of the device overheating and exploding in Korea and the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration banned the Note7 from airplanes and Barack Obama even made fun of the combustible device in a speech.
Samsung responded quickly by offering customers replacement Note7 devices. But when the new phones seemed to be exploding as well, the company decided in October to completely discontinue the model. The number of phones recalled: over 2.75 million. The financial damage: an estimated 7 trillion won ($6 billion).
Despite the odds, shares of Samsung Electronics managed to break record after record this year, suggesting its brand remains strong. Its stock price surpassed 1.8 million won on news that the company will reform its byzantine corporate governance structure.
The top smartphone maker is also hoping to branch out from mobile devices, its bread-and-butter product for years. Samsung acquired a record number of companies abroad this year as part of efforts to diversify. In August, it bought California-based luxury appliance maker Dacor, and most recently, it acquired Harman International, an American auto components supplier, for an astronomical $8 billion.
Samsung is still trying to figure out what caused the Note7 explosions. In the meantime, many customers have switched to its Galaxy S7 Edge, released earlier this year. Others are holding out for the Galaxy S8, which could come out as early as February or as late as April.
Shipbuilding and shipping in crisis
Formerly the nation’s top and the world’s seventh largest shipping line, Hanjin Shipping collapsed after filing for bankruptcy in September, more than $8 billion in debt.
Hanjin’s downfall was proof the container-shipping industry hasn’t recovered from the troubles it has faced since the 2008 global financial downturn. It was a tough year for other global shippers and shipbuilders, as well, as sluggish economies at home and abroad continued to weigh on trade volume as the sea was oversupplied with vessels. Industry leaders Maersk Lines and Mediterranean Shipping Company have been deploying larger ships and cutting costs banking on scale of economy, leading to an endless price war and rock-bottom freight rates.
The crisis has led shipping companies to form alliances or merge to weather the storm. Hyundai Merchant Marine, so far, has survived the crisis but was not accepted as a full member of the alliance with Maersk and MSC, as it is still undergoing severe restructuring.
Declining business also led to fewer orders for new ships, causing a major drought for the nation’s three major shipbuilders - Hyundai Heavy Industries, Samsung Heavy Industries and Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering. In June, the government called for aggressive overhauls of the three companies and state-run lenders pumped billions into the beleaguered sector. The shipbuilders proposed a 10.3 trillion won ($8.5 billion) restructuring plan for the next two to three years, which includes slimming down by gradual layoffs, slicing the number of departments and selling core assets like headquarters buildings or shares of their affiliates.
Korea’s Finance Ministry and creditors led mostly by Korea Development Bank have been heavily criticized for its latency in responding to restructuring for the shipping and shipbuilding sector and shortsighted decisions such as letting the nation’s largest shipper go. In November, Korea said it plans to establish a ship financing company as the industry fights for survival.
Companies apologize for humidifier sterilizers that killed and sickened
Korea’s cold, dry winters are hard on the skin. Humidifiers help. Companies sold sterilizers to keep the water pure and instructed customers to always add it. Many thought it purified the air, so they installed the devices in babies’ rooms or brought them to hospital wards to help sick relatives recover.
In fact, the sterilizers were poison. Mysterious pulmonary illnesses across Korea were traced to the products in 2011. Some of the victims admitted increasing their use of the humidifiers when they developed lung problems, making them even sicker.
This year, the poison-vending companies admitted their products killed at least 95 and made more than 221 sick, although a civic group says the numbers are much higher - some 1,055 deaths. Some victims settled directly with companies, including Oxy Reckitt Benckiser, whose product was the most popular and therefore the most lethal. Oxy promised to provide at least 150 million won ($124,962) to each victim.
Strongest earthquake hits nation
Two earthquakes of 5.1 and 5.8 magnitude rocked Gyeongju, a Unesco World Heritage site, in North Gyeongsang on Sept. 12. The tremors were felt across the nation, even in central Seoul. The 5.8-magnitude quake was the most powerful since 1978, when the government began monitoring seismic activity. Korea Hydro & Nuclear Corporation’s Wolseong reactors were temporarily shut down. The government faced backlash for its poor earthquake readiness after it failed to send out warning messages to the public. Luckily, there were no serious casualties or damage, though minor injuries and property damage were reported. More than 400 aftershocks have been recorded since. The Gyeongju earthquakes raised concern over a possible nuclear meltdown because of the concentration of nuclear reactors along Korea’s southeastern coast, which are designed to only withstand 6.5-magnitude quakes. The government said in December it will bolster the structures of nuclear power plants against seismic activities by 2018 so they are capable of handling tremors over 7.0. It will also require all new houses to be earthquake-resistant and invest in bolstering public facilities against seismic activities.
Woman murdered in Gangnam
In May, a 23-year-old woman was stabbed to death in a bathroom near Gangnam Station in southern Seoul by a complete stranger, a man in his 30s. His initial testimony to the police, that he killed her because he felt that women generally looked down on him, spurred an antimisogynist movement across the country.
Though authorities declared that the man was not a misogynist, but rather a schizophrenic patient, thousands of Post-it notes with antimisogynist messages were posted on Gangnam Station’s Exit 10, and on makeshift monuments throughout the country.
The movement was swept into a gender battle as some began to criticize the movement as vilifying the entire male population. Physical and verbal abuse broke out at the exit gate for a few days, until the mourning Post-its were removed the following week and preserved at Seoul City Hall to keep from the rain.
A local court sentenced the man to 30 years in prison in October, confirming that he suffers from schizophrenia and concluding that he murdered the woman likely because he perceived women to be weaker than men.