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North Korea and South Korea near the "brink of war"

North Korea launches deadly attack on South Korean island. South Korean students ace international test. Korea strikes free-trade deal with United States. Mail-order brides boost international marriage rate.


Top News: Tension on the Korean Peninsula reached a 60-year high when North Korea fired missiles onto South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island Nov. 23, killing two civilians and two marines.  It was the first military strike on civilians since the halt of the Korean War.

Diplomats and defense officials held emergency meetings and rushed to condemn the attacks and to condemn China for not condemning the attacks. South Korean veterans and lawmakers condemned the military’s slow response. Defense Minister Kim Tae-young resigned

The attack happened shortly after North Korea revealed a secretly built uranium enrichment facility to a visiting American nuclear scientist, disclosing to the world its potential to make more powerful weapons.

Less than two weeks after the shelling, U.S. and South Korean troops staged a four-day joint military exercise showcasing their alliance and military might. North Korea issued a series of ominous warnings in response through its state-owned news agency, saying the drills would bring the peninsula “closer to brink of war” and that “no one can predict the ensuing consequences [of the exercises].”

The new South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin later vowed to retaliate with air strikes in North Korea in the event of another attack.

The aggression officially clouded South Korea’s decade-old “sunshine policy” toward the North, with humanitarian aid slashed, family reunions canceled and nuclear disarmament talks on ice, while a growing number of South Koreans expressed support for a strong response against North Korea.

But despite the colder weather and steely warnings — the most recent a threat of nuclear war — daily life continued apace in Seoul, a city accustomed to erratic behavior from its nextdoor neighbor.

High school students, for their part, were more concerned with the annual college entrance exam, which was tougher than usual this year. Many of the nearly 700,000 test takers went home from nine-hour test on Nov. 18 in despair, worried their college hopes were toast. When official results came out three weeks later, the number of perfect scores had plummeted. Officials promised the test would be easier next year.

On the whole, Korean students aced a different test, the Program for International Student Assessment, given to a sample of 15-year-olds around the world every three years. Korea always scores well, but this year it was among the top in every subject and out-performed every other country in reading literacy. 

Money: Ending a three-year stalemate, the United States and Korea signed off on a free-trade deal. The United States dropped a demand that South Korea accept exports of cattle over 30 months old, a concern due to fears about mad cow disease. And Korea agreed to relax emissions standards for some imported American cars. 

The deal still needs to be ratified by both legislatures. Opposition party members in Korea and trade unions in the United States are already arguing that too many concessions were made on either side.

Korea’s economy remained stable in the wake of the attacks, thanks to rising exports and consumption, though the finance minister warned that growth could slow in the coming year.

At current growth levels, per capita income in Korea is expected to surpass $20,000 by the end of the year, a level it has not reached since before the global financial crisis three years ago. Thanks to the strengthening won, economic forecasters say it could surpass $23,000 in 2011.

Elsewhere: In the poorest and most rural reaches of Korea, international marriages are on the rise. A study released this month showed that unions between South Koreans and foreigners accounted for 10 percent of all new marriages in 2009, three times the rate in 2000. Most of the marriages involve Korean men, mostly farmers, who seek out foreign brides with the help of brokers. The average age difference in the marriages is 11 years up from seven years in 2000.

The latest flare up between the Koreas has left little hope for easing not just the political divide, but also a linguistic divide. An ambitious North-South partnership by lexicographers to document the growing differences in the Korean language(s) — one overwhelmed with Western influences, the other stubbornly self-reliant — is officially on hold. 

After 60 years of separation, the differences far surpass tomato, to-mah-toh, the research shows. South Koreans say “juice,” for example, while North Koreans say “danmul,” literally "sweet water." South Koreans say “stocking” while North Koreans say “salyangmal” or "skin sock."

The South Korean language professionals are proceeding alone now on the 370,000-word dictionary, aiming for an increasingly elusive 2014 deadline.