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Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests hardly soured the national mood compared to news that former president Roh Moo-hyun had jumped off a cliff. An EU trade agreement stalls over South Korea’s huge auto trade imbalance. Ssangyong temporarily closes its main plant. And a great crab restaurant in the heart of the tourist district.
Top News: North Korea alarmed the world by conducting a second nuclear test and firing off a series of short-range missiles from the east and west coast of the country. The nuclear test, which caused a 4.5 magnitude earthquake, is said to have been more powerful than the first test in 2006.
The government also took a strong approach by joining the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). This allows the South to intercept North Korean vessels or aircrafts in its water and airspace if they are suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction.
Pyongyang balked and said it is no longer bound by the armistice that froze the Korean War in 1953. North Korea had said in the past that joining the PSI would be tantamount to an act of war.
The nuclear test came at a time when South Koreans were mourning the sudden death of former president Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide in the midst of a corruption investigation.
People stood in lines for hours to pay their respects at makeshift mourning altars that sprouted up all over the country.
Many expressed anger and disbelief at Pyongyang for conducting such an act during a time of mourning. Yet most South Koreans did not show much concern over the nuclear test. Instead, the news of the late president dominated the national mood. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets on the day of Roh’s funeral, bringing the country to a standstill.
For the first time, South Korea’s highest court ensured a 76-year-old brain-dead woman the right to die. The Supreme Court ordered doctors to remove the life support system from the patient, on the grounds that she showed no signs of recovery and had implicitly expressed her thoughts about death in the past.
The woman’s family asked the hospital to remove her life support system last year, but doctors refused, saying the move would violate current medical laws. A lower court had earlier granted the woman the right to die with dignity after her family filed a suit, but the hospital appealed and brought the case in front of the top court.
The case is expected to fire up debate in a country that has a roughly 30 percent Christian population and large Buddhist influence.
Money: The signing of a free trade agreement between South Korea and the European Union will likely be pushed back to the second half of the year, due to a deadlock in negotiations over areas such as the auto industry.
Both sides had aimed to make progress during a weekend summit after the South Korean trade minister and EU trade commissioner failed to reach a breakthrough during April talks.
The EU is South Korea’s second largest trade partner after China, but disagreements about duty drawback and concern about the imbalance in auto trade have become some of the major sticking points. South Korea exports at least 10 times more cars to the European countries than it imports from them, according to 2008 data.
Ssangyong Motors, South Korea’s ailing automaker, temporarily shut its main factory, which was taken over by workers protesting against the company’s plans to cut jobs. The company said the move was taken to prevent further losses after workers went on strike May 21, shortly after the automaker announced it would cut more than 30 percent of its workforce.
Ssangyong, the country’s smallest car manufacturer, specializes in sports-utility vehicles. It has been one of the auto industry’s worst hit by the economic crisis, but has won court protection from creditors.
Elsewhere: On a lighter note, “Moonhwa Gonggan,” a restaurant that specializes in marinated raw crab, is located in the heart of a busy tourist district, Myeongdong, but is relatively unknown to South Koreans. The name of the restaurant means “culture space” in Korean but has no clear connection with artwork or any particular themes on culture.
Instead the place offers fresh raw crab marinated in soy sauce with hot chilies and is served with a bowl of steaming rice cooked in a stone bowl. The owner sometimes demonstrates how to mix the rice into a crab shell drizzled with sesame oil to eat with chunks of crabmeat. The freshness of the crab and slightly spicy sauce that comes with it usually calls for a second bowl of rice.