South Korea News

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By Su-Hyun Lee and Sang-Hun Choe

South Korea has one of Asia’s largest economies, one that resumed strong growth after a brief downturn as a result of the global economic downturn of 2008. But alongside that prosperity run continued tensions with North Korea, its sometimes belligerent communist neighbor, with whom it remains technically at war.

Over the course of 2010, tensions with the North rose and fell as Pyongyang engaged in a series of provocative actions believed to be tied to steps taken by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, to position his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. The South Korean military has maintained high vigilance since North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells at the island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010. That attack and the sinking of a South Korean warship in March 2010 chilled inter-Korean relations to their lowest point in years.

South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, said in December 2010 that he would endorse restarting the so-called six-party talks aimed at shutting down the North’s nuclear programs. The chief nuclear negotiators for South and North Korea met in July 2011 for the first time since 2008, raising cautious hopes that after months of recriminations the countries were inching toward broader talks on ending the North’s nuclear weapons program. But the two nations once again traded artillery fire in August 2011.

While South Korea remains frustrated with the North’s persistence in its nuclear program, it has faced growing appeals from international relief agencies who say that the North’s most vulnerable should not be punished for their government’s deeds. The United Nations humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, said in October 2011 that six million North Koreans were in urgent need of food aid. South Korean Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik told the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, that his government would consider sending aid to the North through the United Nations.

South Korea has also authorized the World Health Organization to resume the distribution of medical aid to the North. In 2009, South Korea donated $13 million for a W.H.O. program to send medicine and medical supplies to the North. But it asked the United Nations agency to suspend the distribution of the money after the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship. In November 2011, the South Korean government accepted the W.H.O.’s request to distribute the remaining money, totaling about $7 million.


Korea’s old name, Chosun, means “the land of morning calm.” But the nation has had a turbulent modern history. After 35 years of Japanese colonial rule, it was liberated by the Allied forces at the end of World War II — only to be divided into the Communist North and the pro-Western South. The two sides, the North aided by the Chinese and the South by the Americans, fought the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. The war ended in a cease-fire, not with a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula technically still in a state of war.

The inter-Korean border remains the world’s most heavily fortified frontier, guarded on both sides by nearly two million battle-ready troops. To the north, North Koreans live under a totalitarian dictatorship that keeps its people in isolation and hunger. To the south, people live in the freedom of one of the world’s largest economies — although the export economy has been hammered by the global downturn.

Unlike many other dictators in the third world, the military leaders of South Korea, ruling over a country devastated by the war, had a vision for economic development. They marshaled the country into rapid industrialization. But people wanted more. When people rose up in the southern city of Kwangju in 1980 to demand democracy, the junta dispatched paratroops and tanks to kill hundreds. Student and labor movements rocked campuses and factories throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. In 1993, military generals relinquished power to Kim Young Sam, the nation’s first civilian leader in three decades. One thing that didn’t change was a prevalent anti-communist sentiment.

South Koreans were shocked and humiliated when their country had to beg a $45 billion international bailout amid the region-wide financial meltdown in the late 1990s. They elected Kim Dae-jung, a long-time opposition leader, as president in 1998. He flung the door open for foreign investors, who bought distressed South Korean firms at fire-sale prices, restructured them and exited, often with staggering profits. Many of the people who had rolled out the red carpet for foreign capital felt bitter.

Mr. Kim’s election brought long-persecuted liberal forces into power. They focused on engaging North Korea — an approach that resulted in the first-ever summit meeting between the two Koreas in 2000. In its wake, two million South Koreans visited a North Korean mountain resort. And in a scene televised worldwide, aging Koreans separated by the war a half century ago tearfully hugged one another in temporary family reunions.

The Presidency of Roh Moo Hyun

Mr. Kim tried to reshape South Korea’s alliance with the United States. Friction with Washington over how to deal with North Korea — with sticks or with carrots — increased under Mr. Roh Moo-hyun, who came to power in 2003, vowing not to “kowtow to the Americans” —  an election-year slogan hugely popular among the postwar generations of nationalistic and often anti-American South Koreans. But in the second half of his term, Mr. Roh also took major steps toward expanding the Korea-U.S. alliance by completing a free trade agreement with the United States; he also dispatched non-combat troops to Iraq as a partner in the American-led coalition forces.

After a decade of liberal rule, however, South Koreans grew concerned about what many perceived as a growing rift between Seoul and Washington. They also felt “sandwiched” between high-tech Japan and low-cost China. They worried about rising housing prices and unemployment among the young. They thought Mr. Roh was bungling the economy.

Lee Myung Bak in Power

The sentiments translated into a landslide victory for Lee Myung-bak in the presidential election in 2007. His election put conservatives back in power. He promised to strengthen ties with Washington and run the country like an efficient business. A former construction C.E.O., Mr. Lee is South Korea’s first president with a business background.

Mr. Roh jumped off a cliff on May 23, 2009, as prosecutors were aggressively pursuing allegations of corruption against him and his family. He had long insisted that in a country where all the recent presidents were touched by scandal, his government was clean. His death set off a weeklong period of grief and mourning unrivaled in recent South Korean history.

In some respects, Mr. Lee has had the kind of presidency Barack Obama would like to have. With less strangling government debt and a society driven to transform itself, Mr. Lee has been able to pursue much of the “win the future” agenda that Mr. Obama has advocated.

South Korea, as Mr. Obama likes to point out, has a high-speed broadband network that reaches more than 90 percent of its people, compared with only 65 percent of Americans. A larger percentage of South Koreans than Americans graduate from college. At a time when financially struggling school districts here are laying off teachers, South Korea is hiring them to satisfy demanding parents.

The two men have also built a personal bond, with Mr. Lee being among a small number of leaders who seem to have pierced the president’s reserve. At a lunch in Seoul in November 2009, which aides said left a lasting impression on Mr. Obama, the two spent much of the time discussing education, not least the role of parents in schooling their children.

Mr. Lee has had an even rockier time in the public-opinion polls than Mr. Obama, first struggling with street protests over imports of American beef and, to this day, fending off criticism of his business ethics. Mr. Lee, however, does not have to worry about re-election; by law, South Korean presidents are limited to a single five-year term.

A long delay by the United States in ratifying a free trade agreement also frustrated South Korea and prompted a tense exchange between Mr. Lee and Mr. Obama at a Group of 20 meeting in Seoul in 2010.

In the United States, Congress passed the free trade agreement in October 2011. The South Korean Parliament ratified the agreement in November, though not without chaos or dissent. One opposition lawmaker detonated a tear gas canister, throwing the National Assembly chamber into chaos. A scuffle erupted, but members of the governing party outnumbered their foes and, while sneezing and wiping tears, passed the deal.

The opposition argued that the deal would fatten the pockets of big export companies, which dominate the economy, while depriving farmers and small merchants of their livelihoods. Amid widespread distrust of big business and resentment of what is seen as increasing economic inequality, such fears have led thousands of farmers and labor activists to hold almost daily protest rallies outside the Parliament building.

Plain Talk About Inequality and Justice

Two days before Seoul elected a mayor in October 2011, an unassuming man slipped into the campaign headquarters of Park Won-soon, an independent candidate. Amid flashing cameras, the man, Ahn Cheol-soo, a soft-spoken university dean who had earlier been seen as a contender for mayor himself, affirmed his support for Mr. Park, entrusted him with a written statement and then left.

“When we participate in an election, we citizens can become our own masters, principle can defeat irregularity and privilege, and common sense can drive out absurdity,” said Mr. Ahn’s statement, an open appeal to voters that quickly spread by way of Twitter and other social networks. “I’m going to the voting station early in the morning. Please join me.”

It was a pivotal moment in an election whose outcome rocked South Korea. In a country where resentment of social and economic inequality is on the rise, and where many believe that their government serves the privileged rather than the common good, Mr. Ahn’s words — “participate,” “principle,” “common sense” — propelled younger voters to throw their support overwhelmingly behind Mr. Park, the first independent candidate to win South Korea’s second-most-influential elected office.

Polls indicated that nearly 30 percent of the voters who backed Mr. Park on Oct. 26 did so because of Mr. Ahn.

Mr. Ahn’s charged comments on themes like inequality, the middle class, the despair of the young and “businesses with a soul and a goal nobler than just making money” are prompting comparisons with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Yet, after setting off what stunned politicians called a “tsunami,” Mr. Ahn retreated from public view, declining requests for interviews. Nevertheless, he remains South Korea’s hottest political star. Politicians have called on him to declare whether he intends to run in the December 2012 presidential election, but so far, he has kept silent.

A Nuclear Demonstration and an Attack

Technically, North and South Korea remain at war because they suspended hostilities in 1953 with a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty. The two sides have never agreed on a western sea border, subjecting the waters around the island of Yeonpyeong to rival claims and occasional military clashes. Hundreds of South Korean fishermen operating in the waters have been taken into custody by the North Korean Navy. The two navies fought skirmishes in 1999, 2002 and 2009.

The government of Mr. Lee has upended many of the policies of his immediate predecessor, Mr. Roh, a liberal who had focused on developing ties with North Korea and sent it significant amounts of aid. Mr. Lee has taken a much tougher stance toward the North, pushing hard for it to give up its nuclear program. Many South Koreans had expressed frustration with the North even before its last nuclear test, on May 25, 2009, the missile tests that followed and the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan.

An international crisis was sparked by the sinking in March 2010 of the Cheonan following an explosion that killed 46 sailors. In May, the South Korean government presented forensic evidence that a North Korean torpedo had struck the 1,200-ton corvette near a disputed sea border with the North.

Relations between the two Koreas deteriorated to their worst point in many years in May 2010, as the South Korean president recast North Korea as its “principal enemy” — a designation dropped during inter-Korean detente in 2004 — and the North retaliated by severing its few remaining ties with the South.

In November, South Korea was rocked by two developments with the North. First, North Korea had invited a Stanford nuclear scientist to Yongbyon, its primary nuclear site, and showed him what was described as a just-completed centrifuge plant that, if it becomes fully operational, should enable North Korea to enrich uranium into nuclear fuel and add to its arsenal of 8 to 12 nuclear weapons.

Then came the Nov. 23 shelling of a South Korean military installation on Yeonpyeong Island, a fishing village whose residents fled by ferry to the mainland city of Inchon — where Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops landed 60 years ago this fall, three months after the outbreak of the Korean War.

Taken together, the nuclear demonstration and the attack were widely interpreted as an effort to bolster the credentials of Kim Jong-un, the heir apparent as the country’s leader, and the son and grandson of the only two men who have run the country. When his father, Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s ailing leader, was establishing his credentials, the North conducted a similar series of attacks.