The year 2018 saw unprecedented summits between reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his South Korean and U.S. counterparts, ushering in a new period of rapprochement between the two Koreas. But Korea was also rocked by political scandals and a dismal economy as government efforts to stimulate consumption and ensure more equitable wealth distribution backfired.
◆ Kim Jong-un Meets S.Korean and U.S. Leaders
Following a year of tensions, dialogue with North Korea started when the North agreed to participate in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and sent a delegation of senior officials including the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Kim met South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the border truce village of Panmunjom in April and May, and in the North Korean capital in September. He also flew to Singapore for a carefully orchestrated photo op with U.S. President Donald Trump, where the two signed a vaguely worded undertaking to "work toward" denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with a view to normalizing relations.
But talks have since stalled because the U.S. and North Korea disagreed about the process of denuclearization, and crippling sanctions remain in place. As a result, Kim's planned visit to Seoul and a second U.S.-North Korea summit have been postponed.
◆ Top Politicians Fall Foul of the Law
Lee Myung-bak became the second former president to get caught up in the current government's reckoning with past abuse of office when he was indicted on corruption charges in March after a six-month investigation by prosecutors. In October he was jailed for 15 years for bribery in office and other crimes.
Prosecutors also charged South Gyeongsang Province Governor Kim Kyung-soo of conspiring with power blogger "Druking" in online manipulation of public opinions in the lead-up to the last presidential election. Progressive politician Roh Hoe-chan was also accused of taking bribes from Druking. Roh admitted it was a "shameful decision" and committed suicide.
But as the year came to an end, Cheong Wa Dae was also accused of dirty tricks by illegally spying on executives at major state-run businesses whom they suspect of being too close to the Park Geun-hye administration and setting special investigators on their trail.
◆ Minimum Wage Hike Backfires
In July, the government increased the minimum wage by 10.9 percent to W8,350 for 2019 (US$1=W1,117). It was the second minimum wage hike in two years and came against the wishes of many smaller businesses that are struggling in the midst of a slump. In July, the working week in big businesses was capped at 52 hours, the first time in 14 years that Korea's world-beating working hours were reduced.
But the progressive moves backfired, prompting many small employers to lay off staff or cut their hours to reduce costs and leaving many of the poorest workers worse off. New jobs increased by only 100,000 from January to November of this year compared to 320,000 during the same period of 2017. In July and August, only 3,000 to 5,000 jobs were created, and unemployment is on the rise.
◆ Bangtan Boys Take Billboard Charts by Storm
Seven-member K-pop boy band Bangtan Boys, also known as BTS, took the global music scene by storm in 2018, becoming the first Korean group to reach the top of the Billboard Top 200 twice and soar to the top 10 in the Hot 100 singles chart.
BTS were also the first Korean combo to perform at New York's Citi Field and even delivered a speech against bullying at the UN General Assembly. BTS appeared on the cover of TIME magazine on Oct. 22, and fans around the world were seen belting out the Korean lyrics at their concerts.