Recent News from Korea

Sungnye-mun destroyed

(Ahn Young-joon / The Associated Press)

The main Korean news in recent months was the complete destruction by fire on 10 February 2008 of Sungnye-mun, the gate widely known as Namdae-mun (South Gate). First built in 1398, the pavillion above it had survived the centuries until a man embittered by a grudge against society set it alight. No contingency plans had been prepared for such a fire, it emerged, and like many other cultural treasures the gate was virtually unguarded most of the time. It is to be rebuilt.


A new Gwanghwa-mun


 The Gwanghwa-mun gate, in front of Gyeongbok-gung, which was removed by the Japanese then rebuilt (badly, in the wrong place) under Park Chung-Hee, has been demolished and is being reconstructed in its original position. Seoul City Government is turning much of the road between the gate and Gwanghwa-mun intersection into a landscaped pedestrian plaza.

More and more buildings are being rebuilt inside Gyeongbok-gung, which contained more than 300 halls in 1910, but only 12 in 1945, at the end of Japanese rule. Geoncheonggung Residence, to the north of the main palace area, where Queen Myeongseong was murdered in 1895, has been rebuilt and was opened to the public early in 2008. The Japanese had demolished it completely in 1909. By 2009, it is planned to have restored about 40% of the buildings that existed at the end of the 19th century.

To complete the list of changes in Seoul’s landscape, the two stadiums close to Dongdaemun (East Gate) market no longer exist. The football stadium and the baseball stadium have been demolished to make way for a large park and a ‘design complex.’ The stadiums dated from 1926.

The Second Inter-Korean Summit


President Roh Moo-hyun’s visit to North Korea at the start of October 2007 was less dramatic than the visit by Kim Dae-Jung in June 2000, although it allowed additional glimpses of the leading figures in the North and was generally seen as a success, confirming the results of the 2000 visit. In terms of international politics, it was overshadowed by the ongoing 6-party negociations focused on North Korea’s claim to possess nuclear weapons. These issues continue to be widely covered in the international media, and generally constitute the main topic of North Korean news coverage across the world. Progress has been made, it seems, and further developments are said to be imminent.

In August 2007, after days of torrential rain, North Korea suffered disastrous floods, even worse than those of 2006. There is no doubt that food shortages continue to be grave as a result, especially with the scaling back of international food aid in the course of the dispute about the North’s nuclear ambitions. The numbers of North Korean refugees crossing into China seems to have diminished, for a variety of probable reasons, although South Korean organizations continue to help groups of North Koreans move across China and enter South-East Asian countries, from which it is hoped they can enter South Korea. The United States has begun to accept a token number of North Korean refugees. The great difficulties North Koreans face in finding a place in South Korean society continue to make occasional headlines in the South Korean press.

The Republic of Korea's new President

On Febuary 25, 2008, Lee Myung-bak was installed as tenth president of the Republic of Korea. After 27 years with the Hyundai Group, during which he rose to be its chairman, he resigned and attempted to enter the world of politics in 1992. In 2002 he was elected as Mayor of Seoul and during his reign Seoul’s chaotic bus system was radically renewed, with the introduction of central bus lanes. He gained great popularity also by the creation of an artificial river following the course of Cheonggyecheon, the sluggish stream that flowed through downtown Seoul until it was covered over soon after the Korean War. Largely as a result of such achievements, over 48% of the electorate voted for him in the presidential election, an exceptional majority. The following candidate had only 26% of the vote. The populist anti-conservative groundswell that had brought Roh Moo-hyun to power by a tiny majority failed to crystalize around any alternative candidate this time, and although there were numerous accusations of financial irregularities by Lee, this failed to affect the voters.

Parliamentary elections were held on April 9, 2008. The conservative Grand National Party won 153 of 299 seats while the main opposition United Democratic Party won 81 seats. This election marked the lowest-ever voter turnout of 46.0%. These results suggest that Korea is inclined to turn conservative when the economic situation faces uncertainty, as it certainly does. However, by the end of the president’s first 100 days, on June 2, opinion polls indicated that popular support for Lee had fallen to around 20%, a record for any Korean president.

The beef protests

In later May and early June, downtown Seoul was the scene of massive daily candle-light protests against the Lee Myung-bak government's decision to allow imports of US beef despite the reported risk of mad cow disease. His enormous personal wealth, said to be the result of real-estate speculations, and the fact that his closest advisors have all disclosed huge fortunes, have done nothing to endear him to a population undergoing increasing difficulties in making end meet. The way in which the protests against the beef import decision have to a very large extent been organized through the internet by middle- and high-school students, who have also taken to the streets in large numbers, has left the government rather at a loss; the police used water-canon and physical violence in order to provoke more sympathy for the demonstrators. The Free Trade Agreement with the US, negociated by the previous government, has not yet been ratified in the National Assembly and risks becoming a pawn in the current political tensions, although a majority of Koreans recognize that it is in the best interests of Korean business as a whole. Strong resistance continues on the side of the farmers, however.

Some interesting statistics

South Korean society’s overall condition was illustrated by some recent statistics. A survey by Korea University Medical Center revealed that about 72 percent of 3,578 male respondents and 32 percent of 4,298 female respondents drink alcohol seven times a week. The reports did not say how the respondents were chosen, however, and they were not necessarily representative of Koreans in general. According to the National Tax Service, about 3.29 million kiloliters of liquor were consumed in 2007, up 3.8 percent from 2006. The figure is equivalent to 72 bottles of soju or 107 bottles of beer per adult.

The World Health Organization's annual statistics published early in 2008 showed that the birth rate, the number of babies a woman gives birth to during her lifetime, was 1.2 for Korea as of 2006. The figure is the lowest among 193 countries, along with Belarus, Bosnia Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. It has headed downward from 1.6 in 1990 and 1.4 in 2000. North Korea's birthrate fell to 1.9 in 2006 from 2.4 in 1990 and 2 in 2000. The group of nations with the second lowest birthrate of 1.3 included Japan. Women in the United States gave birth to 2.1 babies, those in France 1.9, mothers in Britain and Scandinavia 1.8. Koreans' life expectancy was 78.5 years, 23rd among the 193 nations surveyed, 75 for men and 82 for women. But their healthy life expectancy, the number of years that a newborn can expect to live in full health, was 65 for men and 71 for women.

The sudden fall in the ‘baby boom’ birthrate in the 1980s means that many of the colleges and universities located in the provinces have been left with very few students; already numbers of teaching staff in the worst-hit institutions have been suspended without pay; bankruptcies and closures are expected to follow. Now that the numbers of small children are shrinking even further, especially in the rural areas where few young couples live, up to 30% of the nation’s primary schools are expected to close soon.