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Annual submissions to the Encyclopedia Britannica

by Peter M. Beck

North Korea (478 words)
Despite leadership uncertainties and growing hardship for the average North Korean, the regime struck a provocative and defiant pose toward the world in 2009. The North's reclusive leader, Military Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il (67), recovered from a suspected stroke. The reclusive Kim made up for lost time with a record 150-plus public appearances during the year. He also appeared to be grooming his third son, Kim Jong-un (27), to be his successor, but brother-in-law Jang Sung-taek (63) seems poised to serve as a caretaker if the younger Kim is not ready to rule. The North remains the only Communist government based on hereditary rule.

Kim Jong-il celebrated his renewed vigor with a long-range missile test and satellite launch in April 2009. Both efforts failed, but that did not stop the regime from declaring a “glorious victory.” The following month, the North appeared to conduct a second and seemingly more successful nuclear test, making the North the world's ninth nuclear power. However, most analysts believe it will be at least a decade before the North can marry its missile and nuclear programs. The North also began rebuilding a light-water nuclear reactor it had partially dismantled as part of a 2005 nuclear accord and could resume plutonium production in a matter of months. In December, U.S. Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth visited the North bearing a letter from President Barak Obama in an attempt to revive the moribund nuclear talks, but the North appears to be in no hurry to return to the negotiating table.

Before America's North Korea envoy had even returned to Washington, Thai authorities interdicted 35-ton North Korean arms shipment believed bound for the Middle East. Under UN Security Council Resolution 1874 (2009), the North is prohibited from exporting heavy weapons. Arms sales, along with illicit drugs and counterfeit goods, are believed to provide the regime with hundreds of millions of dollars in precious hard currency each year.

Meanwhile, North Korea undertook the first revaluation of its currency in almost 20 years by ordering old currency to be exchanged for new at the rate of 100 to 1 on 30 November. Several South Korean NGOs with contacts in the North report widespread anger and confusion in the wake of the sudden move. Not only did the denominations stay the same and the designs look similar, but also exchange restrictions were constantly being adjusted. The revaluation is widely seen as an attempt by authorities reign in the North's burgeoning markets.

Despite promises of a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012, haphazard reforms and a recent sharp decline in humanitarian assistance suggest the real possibility of renewed famine. The North appeared before the UN's Human Rights Council for its first “universal periodic review” on 7 December. The Council made 167 recommendations, many of which the North agreed to respond to, including better monitoring of food distribution.

South Korea (574 words)
South Korea came through the global economic downturn in surprisingly good shape, but even the deaths of the two previous presidents failed to ease the politics of deadlock and retribution. Relations with the United States continued to warm, while ties with the North remained frosty. Meanwhile, two Korean athletes made their mark on the world stage.

After three straight quarters of decline, the South Korean economy came back to life in the second half of 2009, with unemployment peaking at a modest 4% in June and economic growth turning positive in the second half of the year. Hyundai-Kia Motors led the way, with the partners expanding their global market share from 6.5% to 7.8% in the first nine months of 2008.

Hyundai-Kia and Korea's three biggest conglomerates, Samsung, LG and SK, also made preparations for power to be passed from the second to third generations of their founding families. At Hyundai-Asan, which leads cooperation projects with North Korea, Chairwoman Hyun Jung-eun is grooming her daughter to take over in what would be Korea's first mother-daughter succession. The two met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in August.

Koreans mourned the passing of two presidents within three months of each other in 2009. Former President Roh Moo-hyun (62) jumped to his death in May as a result of widening corruption investigations of his family members. Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae-jung (83), succumbed to multiple organ failure in August. Both were long-time democracy activists who also tried to promote reconciliation and cooperation with North Korea.

Internationally, South Korea was selected to host the November 2010 G20 Summit in Seoul and President Lee Myung-bak (68) decided to redeploy several hundred troops and reconstruction personnel to Afghanistan. President Lee also continued to improve relations with the United States. Lee paid a visit to the White House in June and President Barak Obama made a return visit in November. Obama's Seoul visit was widely seen as one of the only bright spots on his first swing through Asia. Meanwhile, the North gave the South the cold shoulder for much of the year, but rumors swirled that a North-South summit could take place in 2010.

Politics remained a blood sport in Korea. Even though the ruling Grand National Party enjoys a clear majority in the National Assembly, the opposition parties physically prevented several votes from taking place. A media law passed only after the ruling party managed to sneak into the legislative chamber through a side door. Lawmakers have also clashed over plans to relocate the central government from Seoul to the countryside and to revive four of Korea's major rivers. The National Assembly failed to pass a budget by the end of the year for the first time in four decades. The first woman to serve as prime minister, Han Myung-sook, was indicted on charges of receiving a $50,000 bribe from a job seeker. The opposition Democratic Party insisted the investigation is politically motivated.

Two South Koreans sent shock waves through the sports world. Kim Yu-na (19) became the first Korean to win the World Figure Skating Championships in May and did it in record fashion with a new high score of 207.71. Kim is now the favorite to win gold in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Golfer Yang Yong-eun pulled off one of the greatest upsets, beating Tiger Woods at the the PGA Championship in August. Yang (38) became the first Asian man to win a major tournament.

Go to Beck on Encylopedia Britannica

Mr. Beck is the Pantech Research Fellow at Stanford University and teaches at American University and Ewha Womans University.

See Beck's Jan. 2007 Article
"Meet an American Imperialist", April 28, 2007
"Expanding Korea's Soft-Power", May 26, 2007
"Leaving Seoul", July 11,2007
"Leaps of Faith", Sept. 2,2007
A Brewing Revolution, Oct. 2007
Talking-points for The Sejong Society, Feb. 2008
Every body should see the film, "The Crossing". May 31, 2008
Yonsei Univ. Syllabus, July 2008
When Bubbles Burst-Daewoo All Over Again, April 11, 2009
"Don't send Al". May 5, 2009
"Republic of suicides". June 1, 2009.
"Wall Street Journal Article". Jan. 4, 2010

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