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Top 10 Korean news of 2020

Yonhap Korea Stories 10:00 December 18, 2020

SEOUL, Dec. 18 (Yonhap) -- The following are the top 10 South Korean news stories of 2020 as selected by Yonhap News editors.

▲ COVID-19 grips S. Korea, worst may be yet to come

COVID-19 touched every corner of the globe in 2020, and South Korea was no exception. The novel virus brought unprecedented changes to daily life, but the worst could be still to come amid the virus resurgence in the winter season.

South Korea is grappling with the biggest wave of the pandemic as the number of new patients reached a new high of 1,078 on Dec. 15. The daily caseload crossed the 1,000 mark on Dec. 13, for the first time since the nation reported the outbreak on Jan. 20.

The total caseload stood at 46,453, with 634 deaths as of Dec. 17.

The country faced its first wave of the outbreak tied to the minor religious sect of Shincheonji in the southeastern city of Daegu in late February and early March. The second wave then gripped the country in late August in connection with a church in northern Seoul and an anti-government rally on Aug. 15.

South Korea has adopted the social distancing scheme to allow people to continue economic activities under tougher health regulations, stressing the importance of wearing masks in public.

While a nationwide three-tier distancing scheme had been implemented until October, the government in November introduced five-step regional restrictions -- Level 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5 and 3 -- to better contain the virus and minimize its fallout on the economy.

Despite stricter restrictions, additional cases continued to snowball in early December due to sporadic infections in the Seoul metropolitan area.

To assuage public concerns, the health ministry said on Dec. 8 that it has secured early access of COVID-19 vaccines developed by four pharmaceutical companies -- AstraZeneca Inc., Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson's Janssen and Moderna -- and from a global vaccine project for 44 million people, enough to cover 88 percent of the nation's population.

Medical workers collect specimens from people for COVID-19 testing at a temporary screening station in front of Seoul Station on Dec. 16, 2020. (Yonhap)

▲ Ruling party secures landslide win in general elections

In the 21st general elections, held on April 15, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) scored a landslide victory. It clinched 163 seats and its ad-hoc sister, or satellite, party for proportional representation won 17. Not long after the elections, the two were merged as planned.

It marked the largest number of seats bagged by a South Korean party in the nation's constitutional history. The 60 percent of seats held by the DP in the 300-member National Assembly are also the highest since the introduction of the current Constitution, revised in 1987.

In this file photo taken April 15, 2020, citizens watch a television news report on the results of the 21st parliamentary elections at Seoul Station in the capital city. (Yonhap)

In contrast, the People Power Party (PPP), which was named the United Future Party at the time of the elections, won a total of 103 seats, just over 100 needed to block constitutional revision. Other minor opposition parties also lost ground in the parliament, turning it back to a two-way rivalry between the DP and the PPP.

By snatching three-fifths of parliamentary seats, the ruling party became able to fast-track bills and put a compulsory halt to filibusters on its own.

It can also independently pass motions on appointing such major officials as prime minister, Supreme Court justice and Constitutional Court judges.

It means that the DP has control of almost all parliamentary affairs, except for constitutional revision.

The party, furthermore, monopolized the chairmanship of all the 18 standing committees following a failure of negotiations with the PPP especially over the leadership of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee, a key bill gate-keeping panel.

▲ Justice minister, top prosecutor clash over prosecution reform

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl dominated the headlines with their ongoing battle over prosecution reform.

Choo took office at the start of the year and immediately conducted a personnel reshuffle among senior prosecutors. The prosecution, headed by Yoon, took direct aim at Cheong Wa Dae by launching an investigation into the presidential office's alleged interference in a 2018 mayoral election.

This compilation image shows Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae (L) and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. (Yonhap)

As tensions between the two escalated, Choo used her investigative command authority to remove Yoon from a probe into alleged irregularities involving his family and close acquaintances.

At a parliamentary hearing, Yoon publicly stated that a prosecutor general is not subordinate to the justice minister.

The prosecution then moved to investigate alleged misconduct in the decommissioning of a nuclear reactor in line with President Moon Jae-in's nuclear-free policy.

Choo took the unprecedented step of suspending the top prosecutor and demanding disciplinary action over his alleged legal and ethical lapses. In protest, prosecutors across the nation issued complaints en masse.

Efforts to reduce the prosecution's investigative powers continued in line with Moon's campaign pledge, resulting in the ruling party railroading a bill through the National Assembly to facilitate the launch of a separate investigative body, called the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials.

▲ Seoul, Busan mayors engulfed in sexual harassment accusations

The mayors of South Korea's two biggest cities, Seoul and Busan, were engulfed in sexual harassment accusations raised against them.

Former Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was reported missing on July 9 and found dead in the woods of Mount Bugak near his official residence in central Seoul the next day. It was later known that one of his former female secretaries officially accused Park, who was serving his third term as Seoul mayor, of sexually molesting her.

The news sent shock waves throughout the nation, as Park as a lawyer handled the country's first workplace sexual molestation case involving a teaching assistant at Seoul National University in 1993.

Former Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don confessed to having sexually assaulted a female subordinate during office hours and announced his decision to step down during a press conference on April 23.

After investigating Oh over sexual molestation, as well as other suspicions, including official election law violations, for four months, the police referred him to the prosecution only on the sexual molestation charges.

This photo provided by the Seoul city government shows a portrait of former Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon placed in his funeral home at Seoul National University Hospital on July 10, 2020. (Yonhap)

▲ Housing market remains red-hot despite tougher regulations

In his speech for the new year, President Moon Jae-in reaffirmed his commitment to stabilize the heated housing market, saying, "We will never lose a war against real estate speculation."

In February, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport designated additional "speculative" zones subject to strict mortgage rules. In July, the government rolled out fresh measures, including tax hikes for multiple-home owners and tighter loan regulations.

Also in July, the ruling Democratic Party rammed through bills to allow tenants to extend their two-year lease contracts, called "jeonse," for another two years and place a 5 percent price hike cap on deposits. Jeonse is a localized property lease system, in which tenants pay a large deposit instead of monthly rent.

Prices of both home purchases and rentals rose at a faster pace, however, in the following months of the law implementation due to a shortage of jeonse homes and ample liquidity.

In response to calls for increased supply, the government in August announced plans to supply 132,000 homes in the Seoul metropolitan area by 2028 by easing restrictions on the construction of residential buildings.

In November, the government said it will supply 114,000 public jeonse homes by 2022 by purchasing existing homes, hotels and offices to convert them into rental homes but failed to ease public discontent.

As the failed real estate policy dragged down the president's approval rating, Moon appointed Byeon Chang-heum, the chief of the state-run Korea Land & Housing Corp. (LH), to replace Land Minister Kim Hyun-mee in December.

Apartment buildings near the Han River in Seoul are seen in this photo taken Dec. 14, 2020. (Yonhap)

▲ N.K.'s liaison office destruction, killing of S. Korean darken cross-border ties

North Korea's demolition of a joint liaison office and its cruel killing of a South Korean government official at sea this year made already chilled inter-Korean relations reach yet another lowest point.

On June 16, North Korea blew up a liaison office in its border town of Kaesong in protest of anti-Pyongyang leaflets flown from the South. With the destruction, the North also cut all cross-border communication lines and threatened to take further action unless the sending of such leaflets critical of its regime stopped.

The liaison office had been regarded as a symbol of rapprochement, serving as a round-the-clock communication channel between the two Koreas since it was launched in September 2018 as a follow up to the summit agreement between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Cross-border tensions heightened further a few months later, as North Korean guards shot dead a 47-year-old South Korean fisheries official adrift in its waters near the western sea border in September.

In an unusual and swift move, leader Kim apologized over the killing, but North Korea refuted South Korea's claims that the official's body was burned and abandoned. Seoul has called for a joint probe into the killing, but Pyongyang has not responded.

The two shocking incidents have marred inter-Korean relations that had already been stalled since a no-deal summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and leader Kim in early 2019.

North Korea has not responded to South Korea's offers for dialogue and discussion of cross-border exchanges. Making matters worse, the North has sealed its borders since early this year as part of efforts to block the inflow of COVID-19 and rejected outside assistance for fear of infection.

This photo, released by the Korean Central News Agency on June 17, 2020, shows the moment of the explosion of the inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong at around 2:50 p.m. on June 16. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

▲ Telegram sex abuse cases stun Korean society

The nation was shocked by a string of Telegram sexual exploitation cases, including the so-called Baksabang scandal, in which dozens of women and girls were blackmailed into providing sexual videos and photos to a pay-to-view Telegram chat room.

Cho Ju-bin, the mastermind of Baksabang, one of the nation's largest online sex trafficking rings, was arrested in March and sentenced to 40 years in prison in November for violating laws to protect minors from sexual abuse and operating a criminal ring to make profits by producing and selling abusive videos.

This composite image shows masterminds of online sex trafficking rings accused of distributing sexual abuse materials on the messaging service Telegram. (Yonhap)

The 25-year-old Cho was convicted of organizing a criminal ring from May 2019 to February this year, during which he and his accomplices blackmailed 74 women, including 16 minors, into filming sexually abusive content and selling it to Baksabang members.

In May, Moon Hyung-wook, a university student, was arrested for creating and operating 12 chat rooms on Telegram that allowed paid members to view illegally taken photos and videos of violent sex acts involving underage girls.

A number of accomplices who participated in the production of abusive sexual materials by Cho, Moon and other offenders, and Telegram members who bought illegal videos and photos from the criminal rings, have also been detained.

The Korean National Police Agency has vowed to intensively crack down on possessors of digital sexual abuse materials. Under the revised laws on the aggravated punishment of digital sex crimes, anybody caught possessing or watching illegally filmed sexual videos could face up to three years in prison.

▲ BTS and 'Parasite' rewrite K-pop, cinema history

K-pop sensation BTS made its presence clear in 2020, not only in the Korean music scene but also in the global pop community, by pulling off record-breaking performances.

In August, the septet's first English-language song "Dynamite" debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 Chart for the first time as a K-pop singer or a band. The disco-pop song with a cheerful melody has remained on the main singles chart for 16 weeks in a row, including three No. 1 finishes. This marked a successful challenge by a K-pop band on the musical mainstream in the United States.

BTS made another breakthrough with a long-awaited nod from the Grammy Awards, which had closed its doors to artists with non-English music.

In December, BTS made music history again with "Life Goes On," the title track of its latest EP "BE," hitting the first-ever Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 sung in the Korean language.

In the cinematic scene, the Cannes-winning black comedy "Parasite" took the U.S. film industry by storm.

At the 92nd Academy Awards held in February, director Bong Joon-ho's seventh feature was awarded four Oscar trophies -- best picture, best director, best original screenplay and best international feature.

Bong became the first South Korean filmmaker to win an award at the Academy. Also, it was the first time that a foreign-language film won the Oscar's most coveted prize of best picture.

This photo, provided by Big Hit Entertainment, shows a concept photo for the latest BTS album "BE." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

▲ Samsung Group chief Lee Kun-hee dies

Lee Kun-hee, chief of South Korea's top conglomerate, Samsung Group, passed away at a hospital in Seoul on Oct. 25 at the age of 78, more than six years after being hospitalized for a heart attack.

Lee, considered one of the most influential businessmen in South Korea's post-war era, had helped Samsung become the world's leading player in the semiconductor and mobile phone sectors after he took the helm of the group in 1987.

Samsung held Lee's funeral service in a private manner amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but leaders from business, political and cultural communities, including Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, visited a funeral parlor to offer their condolences.

Lee, who also served as an International Olympic Committee member, is survived by his wife, Hong Ra-hee, and only son, Jae-yong, and two daughters, Boo-jin and Seo-hyun.

Jae-yong, current Samsung Electronics vice chairman, is widely expected to take over the rein of Samsung Group. He has been already recognized as the de facto leader of the group since his father collapsed in May 2014.

This file photo shows Samsung Group chief Lee Kun-hee, who died on Oct. 25, 2020, at age 78. (Yonhap)

▲ Record-long rainy season, typhoons devastate people's lives

A record-long rainy season and a string of powerful typhoons added to the woes of South Korean people distressed by the prolonged spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

This year's rainy season began June 24 and continued for 54 days in the central part of the country, marking the longest monsoon season ahead of 49 days in 2013. The country's southern areas also had 38 days of rain this summer.

Between June 1 and Aug. 15, South Korea received around 920 millimeters of rain, which is the second-largest amount since the weather authorities began compiling related data in 1973.

The protracted rainy spell was followed by a string of three powerful typhoons -- Bavi, Maysak and Haishen -- until September, which had a devastating toll on the entire nation.

This summer's downpours and typhoons caused serious damage nationwide, killing 53 people and leaving three others missing, government data showed. Some 8,100 people were displaced from their homes. Property damage from the record-long monsoon season was estimated at 1.04 trillion won (US$951 million), with Typhoons Maysak and Haishen causing property damage of about 220 billion won.

In one of many tragic accidents caused by the torrential rain, three people lost their lives after being trapped inside their cars in a flooded underpass in the southern port city of Busan in July.

Part of a road in Gangwon Province, east of Seoul, is destroyed due to Typhoon Haishen on Sept. 7, 2020, in this photo provided by the Yangyang County Office. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)


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