December 30, 2016 08:24
Political turmoil at the end of the year that is likely to result in the first ouster of a democratically elected president overshadowed most other news of the year. Images of downtown Seoul turning into a deceptively festive sea of lights were beamed around the world as over a million protesters took to the streets demand President Park Geun-hye's resignation over a scandal that keeps getting more bizarre with every fresh revelation.
But it has been a turbulent year for Korea on all fronts, from earthquakes to economic woes, not forgetting a spiraling arms race in the region as North Korea accelerated nuclear and missile development and relations between the two Koreas hit an all-time low.
◆ Massive Corruption Scandal Brings Down President
The National Assembly on Dec. 9 passed a bill impeaching President Park Geun-hye, only the second time in recent history that a democratically elected president faced a forcible ouster, though all have left in disgrace. Park stands accused of conniving with a longtime friend of no appreciable talent and without official position to squeeze billions from top conglomerates and turning Cheong Wa Dae into a vaudeville peopled by quack doctors, wannabe celebrities and bumbling fools.
Park's authority and powers were suspended as the Constitutional Court reviews the impeachment bill. Every weekend until then had seen massive candlelight protests in downtown Seoul since the scandal broke in late October, calling on Park to step down, each passing off peacefully despite the record numbers and setting a new milestone in the Korean people’s political maturity.
If the Constitutional Court upholds the impeachment bill, Koreans must vote for a new president within 60 days of the ruling.
◆ N.Korean Belligerence Shuts Kaesong Industrial Complex
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un went all out this year to accelerate the North's nuclear and missile programs. The North edged closer to deploying usable nuclear weapons after conducting two more nuclear tests on Jan. 6 and Sept. 9 and conducting no fewer than 24 test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
In early February, the government here announced it was shutting down the joint-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex, which had served as a source of valuable foreign currency for North Korea. The UN Security Council passed two separate sanctions against the North, but the nuclear standoff shows no signs of abating.
◆ Arms Race Hurts Ties with China
Seoul and Washington agreed in July to deploy a U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery in South Korea to defend allied forces from the increasing North Korean nuclear and missile threat.
Seongju in North Gyeongsang Province was chosen as the location of the THAAD battery, but fierce protests by locals prompted a relocation to the outskirts, but protests continue and have gained traction as a crony scandal engulfs President Park Geun-hye.
The decision also angered China, which fears that the powerful radar of the THAAD battery will be used to spy on its military maneuvers. Beijing retaliated with economic shots before the bow, making it more difficult for some Korean companies and exporters to do business in China, while the number of Chinese visitors to South Korea declined. Seoul and Washington, however, intend to push ahead with the deployment of the THAAD battery.
◆ Strong Earthquakes Rattle Gyeongju
Two earthquakes measuring 5.1 and 5.8 on the Richter scale rattled the historic city of Gyeongju in North Gyeongsang Province on Sept. 12. It was the largest quake yet measured on the Korean Peninsula.
The quakes injured 23 people and damaged thousands of properties. More than 540 aftershocks have been reported until December.
The quakes spread fears that the country is no longer safe from tremors as tectonic fault lines shift, resulting in growing calls for more stringent measures to protect people and buildings.
◆ Anti-Graft Law Goes into Effect
An anti-graft law went into effect as of Sept. 28 seeking to curb endemic small-scale corruption even as the president hoped to get away with graft on a much more comprehensive scale.
The law stirred up controversy after it was passed by the National Assembly in March, with critics claiming it infringes on their right to give gifts, but the Constitutional Court gave it the green light on July 28.
The law makes it illegal for anyone in a position of influence, from teachers and reporters to government officials, to accept meals exceeding W30,000, gifts in excess of W50,000 and congratulatory or condolence money totaling more than W100,000 (US$1=W1,208).
But controversy continues over the legal interpretation, and it has already led to a slump in year-end sales as sweeteners are off the shopping list.
◆ Big Layoffs in Shipbuilding, Shipping Deepen Economic Woes
Massive layoffs in the shipbuilding and shipping industries caused unemployment to soar and more households to fall into debt.
Hanjin Shipping, once Korea's No. 1 shipping company, went bankrupt while Hyundai Merchant Marine failed to join by the world's biggest container-shipping alliance 2M, dealing a further blow to the domestic industry.
Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, which is in the process of laying off huge numbers of workers, is still confronted with mounting losses.
◆ Go Champion Loses to Proto-AI
Google DeepMind's proto-artificial intelligence program AlphaGo defeated baduk or go champion Lee Se-dol with a narrow fourth win in a best-of-five series.
The international press watched with bated breath as a new age of artificial intelligence arrived. IBM's chess computer Deep Blue already defeated a champion in the 1990s, but baduk is far more complex, which had led to speculation that Lee would win. The match brought huge interest in AI and the scope of its impact on human lives, and kindled an interest in science among many young Koreans.
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