By Nam Hyun-woo
For South Korea, 2023 was a rollercoaster year in terms of both diplomacy and national security.
President Yoon Suk Yeol embarked on 12 overseas trips, visiting foreign countries every month except for February, and engaged in bilateral summits with over 100 foreign leaders in 15 countries.
Against the backdrop of shifting world politics, Yoon’s diplomacy brought consequences – both positive and negative. South Korea’s diplomatic stance between the United States and China became more apparent, and Seoul is now positioning itself as a global contributor. However, in the process, the country witnessed escalating tensions between the two Koreas, and Russia emerged as a new concern by sponsoring North Korea’s military ambitions.
Here are the top national and diplomatic issues that made headlines in 2023.
Marking the 70th anniversary of the alliance between South Korea and the U.S., Yoon made a state visit to the U.S. in April and announced the Washington Declaration with President Joe Biden. In the declaration, the leaders described bilateral relations as “a global alliance” and agreed to establish the Nuclear Consultative Group that ensures Washington’s nuclear-based extended deterrence against North Korea.
In August, Yoon visited Washington again for a trilateral summit involving Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Dubbed “a historic moment” by Biden, the summit elevated the three countries’ relations to a quasi-alliance by adopting a series of documents that heighten their security cooperation and economic partnerships to an unprecedented level.
This served as an international testament that South Korea is no longer relying on strategic ambiguity or a balancing act between the U.S. and China, and became a worrisome moment for Beijing, which has been wary of increasing U.S. influence in Northeast Asia.
In doing so, Seoul’s ties with China have shown few signs of moving forward. Despite Yoon’s busy diplomatic outings, he did not have a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the South Korean government’s hope of resuming the Seoul-Beijing-Tokyo trilateral summit within 2023 became elusive.
Improvements in Seoul-Tokyo relations
Enabling the Camp David summit was an improvement in relations between South Korea and Japan. Until 2022, bilateral relations remained at their lowest ebb, but warmed quickly following the Yoon administration’s decision in March to compensate Korean victims of Japan’s wartime forced labor without asking for contributions from the Japanese companies involved.
Since then, Yoon and Kishida held seven summits in 2023 alone to mend fences across the fields of politics, national security, the economy and culture. In doing so, they put each other back on their respective lists of preferred trading partners and restored the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), Seoul’s intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo.
However, negative sentiment remains among South Koreans, because the Seoul government pursued reconciliation despite strong protests from the forced labor victims, while Tokyo did not issue a direct apology to the victims, with Kishida only saying his “heart aches.”
This was coupled with the South Korean government’s tacit approval of Japan’s release of treated radioactive wastewater from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, triggering public concerns over seafood safety and an uproar against the Yoon government.
North’s spy satellite, Russia risk
While South Korea was bolstering its security ties with the U.S. and Japan, North Korea also turned to a foreign powerhouse. On Sept. 13, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited Russia’s Amur Oblast and met Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss military cooperation — apparently to have North Korea provide ammunition to Russia and Russia hand over military technologies to the North in return.
After the summit, Pyongyang launched a military reconnaissance satellite on Nov. 21 and claimed that it successfully entered into Earth orbit. The South Korean military and intelligence authority also confirmed that the satellite, the Malligyong-1, is operating in a limited level of capacity and assumed that Russian technologies were used.
Citing this violates not only United Nations Security Council resolutions, but also a 2018 inter-Korean military tension reduction agreement, the South Korean government suspended part of the deal to resume reconnaissance activities around border areas. The North countered by scrapping the agreement and threatening to deploy more troops and new weapons along the border.
Following the measures, inter-Korean relations returned to pre-2018 levels, and the North is seeking to expand its military cooperation to economic partnerships with Russia. South Korea is scheduled to hold general elections to choose lawmakers in 2024, and experts anticipate the North to stage additional major provocations such as a nuclear weapons test.
Attempts to dismiss PM, arrest opposition chief
In domestic politics, 2023 was full of turbulence and partisan confrontations, as the ruling and opposition blocs became obsessed with attempts to dismiss or arrest each other’s key figures.
On Sept. 21, the opposition-controlled National Assembly passed a motion calling on Yoon to dismiss Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, citing alleged incompetence in his role as chief of the Cabinet. It was the first time in Korea’s history that a dismissal motion against the prime minister passed the Assembly.
The president did not respond to the motion, with officials at the presidential office saying there was “no need for answers.” The ruling People Power Party slammed the dismissal motion for being a political tactic to water down the impact of an arrest motion against main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) Chairman Lee Jae-myung, which was passed on the same day.
The prosecution’s request for parliamentary consent for Lee’s arrest was put to vote on Feb. 27 and Sept. 21 over separate charges. The Assembly passed the second one, following approvals from some DPK lawmakers. It was the first case of the Assembly giving the nod to the arrest of the head of the largest political party and the main opposition party.
Although a court rejected the arrest warrant and spared Lee from incarceration, his legal battle against the prosecution is ongoing, while infighting erupted between the DPK’s pro- and anti-Lee factions. Some anti-Lee faction lawmakers are even weighing the creation of a breakaway party.
Surprise visit to Ukraine
In July, Yoon made a surprise visit to Ukraine and held a summit with his counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, discussing Seoul’s support for the war-torn country.
The visit gained greater attention for its implications on South Korea’s diplomatic dynamics, because it was seen as Seoul’s strong intention to stand by the U.S. on international issues. But at the same time, the trip could be an unnecessary move that might increase tensions with Moscow.
The U.S. and European nations praised Yoon’s visit and support for Ukraine, but Russia increased its military cooperation with North Korea, resulting in the North’s spy satellite launch. In December, Putin said Russia’s relations with South Korea are not in the best shape, while normalizing ties depends on the South.
So far, the South Korean government maintains its position that it is only providing non-lethal military support to Ukraine, such as mine detectors. However, Seoul is widely assumed to be providing indirect arms support by making up for the U.S.’ shortage of artillery shells.
Failed Expo dream
Despite strong support from the government, the public and major Korean businesses, South Korea’s southern port city, Busan, failed to host the World Expo 2030, after being outpaced by Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh in a Bureau International des Expositions vote on Nov. 28.
Busan expressed its intention to host the event in 2014 and the bid became a national project in 2019. The nation officially launched a bidding campaign in July of 2022. Since then, the government and business leaders exerted tremendous energy and diplomatic efforts for a chance to host the World Expo in Busan. Yoon visited Paris twice this year, dedicating the trips to meeting BIE delegations and diplomatic corps.
During the process, the government optimistically predicted that Busan and Riyadh were in a tight race, and that there was a fair chance of winning the bid if the southern port city makes it to the second-round of voting.
However, the result showed that Busan lagged behind Riyadh by 29-119, triggering doubts about the preparation and the government’s access to information on the vote. Due to this, Yoon appeared on a live broadcast and issued an apology, saying that the government and the private sector did their best, but “the predictions turned out to be way off.”
Jamboree becomes humiliation
The 25th World Scout Jamboree that South Korea hosted in August ended up denting the country’s reputation of successfully hosting international events.
The event kicked off on Aug. 1 in Saemangeum, a reclaimed tidal flat in North Jeolla Province, bringing together around 40,000 young Scouts as well as adult volunteers from more than 150 countries.
But the extent of the poor planning and unpleasant conditions became widely known within the first two days, during which hundreds of participants suffered heat-related illnesses as temperatures soared across the country.
Complaints also mounted over shortages of restrooms as well as sanitation problems, resulting in an early departure from the campsite by the U.K. and U.S. delegations as well as participants from Singapore, citing health risks. Later, the remaining participants were evacuated to various regions of the country due to safety concerns ahead of the arrival of Typhoon Khanun. The government attempted to reverse the international criticism with a closing ceremony featuring a large K-pop concert, but this also ended up sparking controversy over an abrupt change of venue and whether the scouts really wanted to watch the three-holong concert.
During the summer, three separate rampages by knife-wielding assailants targeting random victims took place in less than a month, sparking widespread fears over safety.
On July 21, Cho Seon, 33, went on a stabbing spree killing one man and wounding three others near Sillim Station in Seoul, and a similar knife rampage occurred on Aug. 3 by 22-year-old Choi Won-jong near Seohyeon Station in Gyeonggi Province, which left two women dead and 12 others wounded.
On Aug. 17, 30-year-old Choi Yoon-jong brutally assaulted and raped a woman on a hiking trail in Sillim-dong. The victim, who remained unconscious following the attack, died two days later.
Stoking bigger concerns, a string of similar knife rampages took place across the country on a weekly basis, wounding scores of people. Several botched attempts were also prevented by police.
Police defined those crimes as acts of terrorism and came up with hardline responses, deploying armed special operations units and armored vehicles in bustling areas.
Such incidents became a warning sign for the country, which has been confident about public safety, and were followed by social debates on acts of violence against random people. The attacks also reignited calls for capital punishment, which was suspended in Korea 26 years ago.
The government on Oct. 30 approved a revised Criminal Act that allows a life sentence without parole, and submitted it for a vote at the National Assembly. However, debate continues over the effectiveness of the new punishment and its possible infringement on basic rights.
Beginning with the suicide of a 24-year-old teacher at Seo2 Elementary School in southern Seoul on July 18, two more elementary school teachers and one high school teacher took their own lives, shedding light on the infringement of teachers’ rights, including a guarantee of fair treatment and academic freedom, due to harassment by parents.
Although police did not detect any criminal acts, their colleagues believe that the teachers’ rights to fair treatment and academic freedom were violated by some parents repeatedly lodging what many perceived as excessive complaints.
The teachers said many of them suffered from overly demanding parents who unjustly accused academics of child abuse, for what the teachers consider to be necessary disciplinary action against students in the absence of proper measures to protect instructors.
Angry teachers held street rallies in Seoul and other parts of the country every weekend from July 22 to pay tribute to their deceased colleagues and demand the government improve protections for teachers.
The National Assembly hurriedly passed four revisions related to education laws and one revision to the child abuse act, clarifying that teachers’ just disciplinary actions should not be considered as child abuse. Nevertheless, discussions continue regarding the balance between the rights of teachers and students.
Affected by climate change, South Korea suffered unrelenting summertime rainstorms that wreaked havoc on many parts of the country. Until July, at least 50 people lost their lives due to flooding or landslides.
On July 15, 14 people died in a flash flood that inundated an underpass in the Osong area of Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province. Prosecutors raided five regional police and government offices for their failure in early response measures, while ensuing investigations found that the illegal and sloppy construction of the underpass contributed to the tragedy.
Amid continued downpours in July, multiple landslides took place across the country, killing 26 people. Of them, 21 lost their lives in rural counties of Yecheon and Bonghwa, North Gyeongsang Province.
Environmental groups claimed that excessive logging projects and the construction of roads in wooded areas increased the damage. The government also faced criticism over the effectiveness of its disaster warning system.