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Top 10 Korean news of 2019

All News 10:31 December 18, 2019

SEOUL, Dec. 18 (Yonhap) -- The following are the top 10 South Korean news stories of 2019 as selected by Yonhap News editors.

▲ No-deal Hanoi summit sets off fresh tensions in North Korea nuke talks

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held their second summit talks in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 27-28, but the talks ended without an agreement. The two sides failed to narrow differences over how much the North would dismantle its nuclear weapons programs and what concessions the United States would give in return.

In a key policy speech in April, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said the country will seek development based on "self-reliance" and will no longer seek sanctions relief. Kim also gave the U.S. until the end of the year to come up with a new negotiating proposal.

Since then, the North has tested a series of new weapons, including a super-large multiple rocket launcher and a submarine-launched ballistic missile. In October, the U.S. and the North held working-level talks, but little progress was made.

Moreover, the North conducted two "important" tests of what appeared to be engines for a long-range rocket or an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in December ahead of the end-of-year deadline, sparking concern that the North could fire an ICBM as a "Christmas gift" to Trump, who is seeking a second term in next year's presidential election.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C), and U.S. President Donald Trump converse in the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas on June 30, 2019. (Yonhap)

▲ Ex-Justice Minister's nomination spirals into bigger scandal

The "Cho Kuk scandal" began as the conservative bloc, led by the Liberty Korea Party, raised allegations involving Cho Kuk's family following his nomination as justice minister on Aug. 9. They claimed his family were involved in financial irregularities and received benefits in college admissions. The prosecution's ensuing probe further triggered the "Cho Kuk scandal."

It was more than a judiciary issue. The National Assembly's regular session was a de facto "Cho Kuk National Assembly" as parties bickered over the appropriateness of Cho. Opinions outside the National Assembly were polarized as the public held massive protests for and against him in Seocho in southern Seoul and Gwanghwamun in central Seoul, respectively.

President Moon Jae-in went ahead with the appointment of Cho, a former top presidential secretary, on Sept. 9, but Cho stepped down from the post on Oct. 14, 35 days following the appointment. The controversy, however, did not end as the ruling bloc and the prosecution were mired in a conflict over numerous allegations involving Cheong Wa Dae's civil affairs unit that was previously led by Cho. The issues include an alleged cover-up of a special inspection into bribery charges against former Busan vice mayor Yoo Jae-soo and the presidential office's alleged election-meddling that some claim involved probes into aides of former Ulsan mayor Kim Gi-hyeon, who was defeated by a Democratic Party (DP) candidate known to be close to Moon.

The ruling bloc countered by accelerating its prosecution reform drive including bills that call for the installation of a special anti-corruption unit. On Dec. 5, Rep. Choo Mi-ae, a former DP leader, was nominated as justice minister. Tensions have also risen as the passage of a prosecution reform bill is imminent.

An image showing former Justice Minister Cho Kuk against the prosecution office in southern Seoul. (Yonhap)

▲ Seoul-Tokyo ties chill over wartime history, trade

Relations between South Korea and Japan dipped to the lowest point in years after Tokyo announced in July tighter export controls for three industrial materials vital to South Korea's semiconductor and display industries.

The move was seen as retaliation for South Korean Supreme Court rulings in late 2018 that ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation for Korean victims of forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 rule of the Korean Peninsula.

In response, South Korea decided in August to end a bilateral military intelligence-sharing pact, known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). But the decision drew strong complaints not only from Japan, but also from the United States.

South Korea also filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against Tokyo's export curbs and removed Japan from its own whitelist of favored trade partners.

But behind-the-scenes talks continued between the two countries. In particular, the two sides explored ways to improve relations, with South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon attending the enthronement ceremony for Japan's Emperor Naruhito in October, and President Moon Jae-in holding a brief meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of a regional summit in Bangkok.

The two countries tried to patch up relations with an agreement under which South Korea decided to conditionally renew GSOMIA just six hours before its expiry at the end of Nov. 22, but key thorny issues, such as the issue of wartime forced labor, still remain unresolved.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (2nd from L) sit down for talks with her Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi (R) on the margins of the Group of 20 nations foreign ministerial meeting in Nagoya, Japan, on Nov. 23, 2019. (Yonhap)

▲ Partisan tensions heighten over reform bills on parliamentary fast track

Since April, rival political parties have clashed over a set of bills on reforming an election system and the state prosecution that were placed on a parliamentary fast track.

The ruling Democratic Party (DP) and its three smaller rivals designated those bills as fast-track legislation in late April despite objections from the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP).

The electoral reform bill calls for adopting a new proportional representation system. The prosecution reform proposals are aimed at setting up an independent unit to probe corruption by high-ranking public officials and giving more investigative authority to police.

In the designation process, DP and LKP lawmakers engaged in physical scuffles and filed complaints with the prosecution against each other in a tit-for-tat manner.

Those bills were recently referred to parliamentary plenary meetings, heralding another round of intensified political tensions. The LKP filed for the use of a filibuster or prolonged speech to deter parliamentary votes on them.

Lawmakers of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party lie down at the National Assembly on April 30, 2019, to block other parties' lawmakers from entering a meeting room for the designation of an election reform bill as a fast-track measure. (Yonhap)

▲ Police identify key suspect in serial murder case from 1980s

In September, police identified Lee Chun-jae, 56, as the prime suspect in the country's worst serial killings for the first time after 33 years.

Lee, now in jail for a separate murder case, is alleged to have killed at least five out of 10 women in a rural village of Hwaseong, south of Seoul, between 1986 and 1991.

An advancement in DNA analysis technology contributed to identifying the suspect in one of the country's worst cold cases. But Lee will not face criminal punishment for the serial murder as the related statute of limitations expired in 2006.

A controversy over misjudgment by authorities and police's suspected clumsy probe erupted after Lee confessed to the eighth killing, which police previously concluded was a copycat crime.

A man, surnamed Yoon, was identified as the culprit at the time of the murder and served a 20-year jail term. Yoon, who long argued his innocence and was released on parole in 2009, filed for a retrial in November. Police recently reached a tentative conclusion that Lee was behind the eighth case in 1988.

This composite file photo shows Lee Chun-jae, the key suspect in the Hwaseong serial murder case that took place about 30 years ago. (Yonhap)

▲ 25 South Koreans killed, one missing in Hungary boat sinking

A sightseeing boat, the Hableany, carrying 33 South Korean tourists and two Hungarian crew members, sank after colliding with a larger Swiss cruise ship, Viking Sygin, in the Danube River in central Budapest on May 29.

The accident left 25 Koreans dead and one unaccounted for. The two Hungarian crew members also died. It was the worst maritime accident to happen in the Danube River in decades.

In October, Hungarian police referred to the prosecution the captain of the cruise ship, Yuriy C., recommending indictment for negligence and other charges, punishable by a prison term of up to 13 years under Hungarian criminal law.

In April, South Korea battled a massive blaze that ripped through forests and cities along the eastern coastal regions of Goseong, Sokcho, Gangneung and Donghae in one of the worst wildfires on its soil in years.

The fire left two people killed and dozens others injured, with a few thousands left displaced and damages piling up to an unprecedented extent.

The blaze burned over 2,872 hectares of woodland, equivalent to the size of some 4,022 football stadiums, and damaged homes of 658 households.

The government declared a state of national disaster to enable the swift provision of relief supplies and extra funding to the affected regions.

Flower wreaths are laid on the ground along the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary, to pay tribute to the victims in a boat sinking that left 25 South Koreans dead and one missing, in this photo filed on June 12, 2019. (Yonhap)

▲ "Parasite" wins highest Palme d'Or at Cannes

South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho was awarded the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his seventh feature "Parasite." It was the first time that a Korean-made film won the Cannes' highest accolade in the country's 100-year history.

He made his Cannes debut with his smash-hit monster blockbuster "The Host" in 2006. The highest grossing South Korean film at the time was screened at the Directors' Fortnight there. His 2008 short film "Tokyo!" and 2009 thriller "Mother" were each invited to Cannes' official Un Certain Regard section.

Two years after his first English-language adventure movie "Okja" made it to the competition section in 2017, Bong finally embraced the brightest golden palm trophy at Cannes.

"Parasite" is a story of two families, one rich and one poor, who become entangled, leading to a series of unexpected violent mishaps. Bong depicts the entrenched social class system through his signature black humor and fine-tuned suspense and horror.

The film won rave reviews from film critics and achieved commercial success at home and abroad as well. It attracted more than 10 million viewers in South Korea alone, a rare achievement for a critically acclaimed title. In the United States, the movie raked in more than US$20 million in ticket sales, becoming the highest-grossing Korean film in the country ever.

It was nominated in three categories, including best director, for the upcoming Golden Globe Awards slated for Jan. 5.

Moreover, it was shortlisted for best international feature film at the Academy Awards slated for February. U.S. media also consider the film a candidate for the best picture and best director awards.

In this photo moved by EPA, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho poses after winning the Palme d'Or at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 25, 2019. (Yonhap)

▲ A series of measures to rein in soaring home prices

South Korea came up with strong measures to clamp down on rising home prices in Seoul and other areas on Sept. 13 last year, whose centerpiece was a tougher property tax on multiple homeowners and strict lending regulations.

The measures kicked in, but home prices began to soar in the second half of 2019 following the adoption of the "presale price cap system" that restricts presale prices of privately built apartments, the toughest step ever taken by the Moon Jae-in administration.

Construction firms and residents delayed rebuilding existing apartments for higher returns amid few newly built apartments in Seoul and adjacent areas, which further pushed up prices in recent months.

Alarmed by the sharp rise in apartment prices, the Moon administration again rolled out the latest steps on Dec. 16 to curb soaring home prices. The steps include stricter lending rules for home purchases, expanded adoption of a presale price cap for newly built apartments and a hike in property taxes on multiple homeowners.

For instance, mortgage loans will be banned when buying a house worth over 1.5 billion won (US$1.3 million) in "speculative and overheated speculative" areas.

Housing prices in South Korea have been on the rise in recent years, spurring policymakers to roll out a series of measures, including tightened home-backed loan regulations and hefty taxation, to cool down home prices.

But a supply shortage in Seoul and adjacent areas and low borrowing costs have continued to drive up demand for new apartments, while prodding builders to scramble to demolish aged apartments on hopes for hefty gains after rebuilding.

This photo shows rows of apartments in Seoul, South Korea. (Yonhap)

▲ Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae indicted, detained

Following an eight-month probe into a judiciary power abuse scandal, Yang Sung-tae became the first Supreme Court Chief Justice in South Korea's judicial history to be indicted and detained.

The prosecution indicted and detained Yang on 47 counts relating to his alleged abuse of leadership, including interfering in trials, compiling and managing a so-called blacklist of some judges and forming a secret fund.

Ten other former and incumbent ranking judges also faced trials for being involved in the allegations.

Yang fiercely refuted the charges throughout the trials. He refused to stand in front of a press photo line during his summoning and held a separate press briefing in front of the Supreme Court.

The trials have involved more than 200 witnesses filed by the prosecution, and scores of judges appeared at the court to testify. The hearings are expected to continue into the first half of 2020 at the earliest.

The court denied his request for bail in March. But he was subsequently released in July for the remaining trials.

This file photo shows former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae. (Yonhap)

▲ K-pop stars disgraced by Burning Sun scandal

The Burning Sun scandal, which originated from an assault case at a southern Seoul nightclub named Burning Sun in late 2018, escalated into a massive entertainment and sex scandal in early 2019, disgracing a number of K-pop singers and celebrities and police officials.

The nightclub affiliated with former boy band BIGBANG member Seungri drew an outpouring of suspicions as a hotbed of collusion with police officials, drug trafficking, tax evasion and other illegalities, prompting President Moon Jae-in to order a thorough investigation into the case.

The controversy over the scandal then spiraled out of control when it was disclosed that Seungri mentioned a top police official who helped cover up illicit dealings at the Burning Sun nightclub in KakaoTalk group chat rooms of K-pop stars and Jung Joon-young, a singer and TV personality, secretly filmed himself having sex with women and shared the footage with friends on mobile chats.

A team of 152 police officers launched a large-scale investigation into the Burning Sun scandal, resulting in the arrests or booking of a co-owner of the nightclub, a ranking police officer identified only as senior superintendent Yoon, and a number of K-pop stars, including Jung and Choi Jong-hoon, a former member of boy band FT Island.

Police was criticized for referring Yoon to the prosecution without detention on charges of leaking police intelligence to Burning Sun. Yoon was later arrested and indicted by prosecutors on charges of accepting bribes and committing other illegalities related to the nightclub. Jung and Choi were sentenced to six and five years, respectively, in prison after being convicted on rape and other charges in November.

This composite file photo shows Burning Sun nightclub in southern Seoul and a police station. Alleged collusion between nightclub owners and police stunned the nation. (Yonhap)


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