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South Korea braces for changes up North

North Korea’s Dear Leader prepares the way for successor. Prominent North Korean defector found dead in his bathtub. Reunions to resume for divided families. Kimchi crisis in South Korea.

South Korean women make kimchi


Top News:  A rare and much anticipated meeting of the Worker’s Party in North Korea’s capital city Pyongyang set the stage for a power transfer from the ailing 68-year-old leader Kim Jong Il to his relatively unknown son. Kim Jong Un, thought to be in his late 20s, emerged from the shadows to a prominent government appointment and the position of four-star general during the Sept. 28 meeting. His heir-apparent status was crystalized two weeks later when he stood with his father at an elaborate public celebration and parade commemorating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party. An unprecedented number of foreign journalists were invited to view the spectacle.

On the same day, the highest ranking North Korean official to ever defect was found dead in his bathtub in Seoul. The 87-year-old had been a senior member of the ruling party before seeking asylum with the South during a visit to China in 1997. Hwang Jang Yop appears to have died of natural causes. 

Reunions for family members divided by the Cold War’s lasting frontier are poised to resume at the end of October. The meetings will be held at Mount Kumgang resort, where a North Korean guard killed a South Korean tourist who wandered into a restricted area in July 2008, leading the south to stop family reunions along with all tourism. The reunions are a welcome sign for approximately 80,000 Koreans waiting to see relatives estranged by the Korean War in the early 1950s. The Red Cross estimates that about 260 of those waiting die each month.

While the post-war division of Korea continues to exact a heavy emotional toll on South Koreans, many in the booming high-tech nation express greater angst about the possibility of reunification. In a poll released this month, 62 percent of respondents said the costs of reunifying with the now-impoverished northern neighbor would outweigh the advantages of restoring the country’s national identity and bringing security to the peninsula.

The population of South Korea is expected to reach 50 million this month, a milestone reached relatively slowly. The nation of career-minded strivers posted among the lowest birth rates in Asia last year, with 0.3 percent population growth. 

A 52-year-old elementary school teacher in Seoul became the first in Korea to be fired for corporal punishment this fall. The teacher was caught on video tape swearing at student, pushing him to the ground and kicking him. His termination comes as education ministries in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province are revising rules to prevent teachers from physically disciplining students. Abandoning the long tradition of enforcing school work with a stick or a slap is not without debate. Superintendent of schools in Busan, the country’s second largest city, told the Korea Times she would not abandon physical discipline. “Banning corporal punishment abruptly means teachers will be stripped of tools to control unruly students. I think we still need the ‘love of rod’ in classroom,” said Lim Hea-kyung. 

Money: The price of cabbage spiked this month, setting off a kimchi crisis just as families were stocking up to prepare their winter supply of the traditional spicy dish. Heavy September rains destroyed large swaths of Napa cabbage fields, boosting the price for the preferred variety. In many places, the price tag tripled in a few weeks to more than $6 a head. Record prices have inspired a new name for the dish: “geum-chi,” using the Korean word for gold, “geum.”

Two years after the world wide economic crash, Korea’s rebound is coming faster than other major economies, a trend that some economists attribute to a stimulus package that saved many jobs and created new ones.

Korea signed a free trade agreement with the European Union, its second largest trading partner. The pact, signed Oct. 6 in Brussels, follows two years of negotiations and will go into effect next summer. Officials say it will boost trade, create jobs and lower tariffs.

Korean automakers expect to be among the winners, as a 10 percent import duty for cars entering the EU will eventually disappear. Korean wine drinkers can also raise a glass as reduced import fees should lead to a bounty of bordeaux and chiantis on store shelves now stocked with slim pickings and astronomical prices. Korean farmers, on the other hand, are bracing themselves for losses, thanks to stiffer competition.

Elsewhere: Olympic skating champion Kim Yu Na, an idol for millions, appears to be falling short in one key aspect of Korean life — school work. The elite athlete spends most of her time training overseas rather than in class at the prestigious Korea University. In place of regular classwork, she is often expected to provide video clips or essays. But one professor said she is not achieving even modified expectations. He suggested that she take a leave of absence while she trains abroad. 

Tattoo-loving hipsters are pushing the Korean government to overturn a 2001 law that classifies tattooing as a medical procedure. Tattoos have been said to violate Confucian teachings and large tattoos can get a man rejected from the army. But with as many as 22,000 tattoo artists operating underground, body art is more fashionable than taboo among younger Koreans and they want outdated regulations gone.