The Year 2012 was a year of contradictions for Korea. It saw young voters galvanized by a rejection of traditional politics, while older voters proved even more fervent in embracing it. Economically, the country notched up new records in trade, yet ordinary people felt increasingly pinched. Big business boomed, but small businesses are more pessimistic than ever about the future. Only one thing was for sure: "Gangnam Style" was the biggest global hit the country, and indeed the world, has ever seen.
◆ Park Geun-hye Elected President
Saenuri Party candidate Park Geun-hye was elected as Korea's first female president in December. Park returns to Cheong Wa Dae, where she already lived when her father Park Chung-hee was president from 1962 until his assassination in 1979. She faces tough tasks such as uniting a public that is ideologically divided, narrowing the widening gap between the rich and poor and dealing with North Korea.
At the beginning of this year, the Saenuri Party was extremely unpopular and feared it would see the number of its seats in the National Assembly fall below 100. But it managed to win 152 seats in the April 11 general election, defeating of the main opposition Democratic United Party and leftwing United Progressive Party.
Park, who headed an emergency task force in the Saenuri Party to steer it out of its doldrums, proved her political skills and succeeded in her presidential bid despite controversy over illegal campaigning and her tacit approval of her father's oppressive policies. Only late in the campaign did Park venture a reluctant apology.
◆ Ahn Cheol-soo Galvanizes Young Voters
The popularity of software tycoon Ahn Cheol-soo soared all year, countering predictions by pundits that the phenomenon would be short-lived.
Ahn pitched reforms to end tired old traditional politics, galvanizing especially young voters. In September he announced his presidential bid, threatening the lead of ruling Saenuri Party candidate Park Geun-hye.
But Ahn suddenly withdrew from the race in late November amid friction with Democratic United Party hopeful Moon Jae-in in fielding a single candidate for the opposition.
◆ N.Korea Launches Rocket
On Dec. 12, North Korea attempted its second rocket launch since young leader Kim Jong-un stepped into power and succeeded in putting a rudimentary satellite into earth orbit.
The successful launch gave North Korea the technology to deliver a 500 kg warhead on a target more than 10,000 km away. But Kim failed to revive the economy of the impoverished North, where people are still starving to death.
North Korea also ceased to boast that this year would mark its emergence as a "powerful and prosperous nation." Instead, it has begun using the term "self-rehabilitation."
◆ Economy Marks Int'l Milestones
Korea became the seventh country in the world to register a per-capita gross national income of US$20,000 with a population of 50 million. In September, global rating agency Fitch upgraded Korea's sovereign credit rating by one notch from A+ to AA-, placing Korea one notch above Japan's A+ for the first time.
In October, Songdo in the western port city of Incheon edged out Bonn, Germany to host the headquarters of the UN Green Climate Fund. With 190 member countries, the GCF is the largest international organization based in Asia.
◆ Psy Becomes Global Star
Rapper Psy became a global sensation with his song "Gangnam Style." His horse-riding dance and the addictive rhythms not only catapulted the song to the top of the domestic music charts but also attracted hordes of fans from around the world via YouTube.
In spite of its Korean lyrics, "Gangnam Style" remained at No. 2 for seven weeks in the U.S. Billboard charts and racked up a record 1 billion views on YouTube.
"Gangnam Style" also ranked at No. 1 in the British Official Singles Chart, while becoming the most-downloaded song on iTunes in 41 countries, including Canada, Chile and the U.S.