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A look back at 2011 – part 3

In the final part of our look back at 2011, we summarise some of the news stories which caught our eye.


The Chinese aircraft carrier formerly known as the Varyag
The Chinese aircraft carrier formerly known as the Varyag

This year the region’s biggest economy continued flexing its muscles: it conducted the first test flight of its new stealth fighter, announced that it had deployed stealth missile speedboats in the East China Sea, and conducted sea trials of its first aircraft carrier.

In relation to North Korea, China refused to endorse a UN motion on the North’s uranium enrichment programme, but later claimed that it was doing more than it seemed to contain North Korea. A Japanese scholar suggested that China had cut off the DPRK’s oil supplies to prevent further hostilities after last year’s Yeongpyeong shelling.

A Chinese woman was discovered to have secured favours, and maybe secrets, by sleeping with several diplomats from the South Korean consulate in Shanghai.

Chinese fishermen continued to intrude into South Korean fishing grounds, and butchered a South Korean coastguard in one particularly bloody incident.

Dokdo and the East Sea

The Sea of Corea, from The Universal Gazetteer, 1760
The Sea of Corea, from The Universal Gazetteer, 1760

The Japanese earthquake was said to have moved Japan further away from Dokdo. Britain was momentarily in the good books of Dokdo nationalists when it emerged that and 18th century map published in London called the sea east of Korea the Sea of Corea, but then spoiled it all by supporting the use of Sea of Japan at the International Hydrographic Organization. The South Korean government was reported to be considering referring to the Falklands Sea as the Malvinas Sea in retaliation.

Singer Kim Jang-hoon on Dokdo
Singer Kim Jang-hoon on Dokdo

Singer Kim Jang-hoon gave a concert on Dokdo, and hanbok designer Lee Young-hee held a fashion show there. Korea planned to renovate a heliport on the rocky island. Three conservative Japanese lawmakers planning a visit to Ulleungdo were turned back at Gimpo airport.


North Korea proclaimed itself the second-happiest nation on earth, after China. Kim Jong-il’s dogs were certainly happy, reportedly eating their way through $200,000 of pet food a year.

North Korea held its first ever amateur open golf championship. The event was noted for its comely caddies.

Five members of the North Korean women’s football team tested positive for drugs at the World Cup tournament in Germany. The North Korean version of events was that the players had used steroid-laced medicine from musk deer glands to treat injuries from a lightning strike at their training camp.

It emerged that South Korean army trainees have used portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il as target practice.

The completed exterior of the Ryugyong Hotel
The completed exterior of the Ryugyong Hotel

In preparation for the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth in 2012, when North Korea will be a great and prosperous nation, the exterior of the Ryugyong Hotel was completed, and colleges were closed to provide extra labour for construction projects. One of the 2012 projects is to build reconstructions of Silla dynasty monuments situated in South Korea.

The DPRK’s fundraising activities included a casino in its Moscow embassy complex, crystal meth and heroin exports. North Korean workers can be found in Vladivostok working on construction sites and in Mongolia making jumpers for Edinburgh Woollen Mill. North Korea stands to make $100 million annually from the proposed gas pipeline from Russia to South Korea in a deal announced by Dmitry Medvedev and Kim Jong-il at a meeting in Siberia. Following its seizure of South Korean investments at the Mt Kumgang resort, it also ran its first cruise, from Rason to Kumgangsan.

Other, more unusual, ways that North Korea aimed to raise foreign currency is by unleashing hackers into South Korean video games to get points convertible into cash, and smuggling art works from Mansudae Studios into South Korea.

An advertisement for Homefront at Hammersmith tube station, London, May 2011
An advertisement for Homefront at Hammersmith tube station, London, May 2011

The North was responsible for a massive cyber-attack on South Korean government and financial institution websites. Following NATO’s intervention in Libya in March, North Korea announced that Gaddafi was a fool to give up its WMDs and the DPRK wouldn’t make the same mistake. Kim Jong-il snubbed ex-President Jimmy Carter and other elders when they visited in April. An American company released a tasteless videogame called Homefront, in which a North Korean army conquers the USA in 2025. The game is banned in South Korea.

Kim Jong-il died on 17 December, an event marked, like his birth, by natural marvels.

Kim Jong-un's daft haircut.
Kim Jong-un's daft haircut. His sister Kim Yeo-jong is circled.

Kim Jong-un unveiled the daftest haircut ever sported by the leader of a nuclear armed state, and some media sources started spelling his name partially using South Korean conventions: Kim Jong-eun.

Domestic news

Shin Jeong-ah returned to the public eye, settling with one newspaper over compromising photos, and launching a book to tell her side of the story.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, in whose time as mayor the city debt levels are said to have tripled, resigned after failing to win a referendum which sought to block free school meals for the rich. There were allegations that a cyber attack sponsored by conservative elements sought to disrupt the subsequent election, won by liberal maverick Park Won-soon. The GNP seemed to start to self-destruct as 10 lawmakers demanded reform.

Seoul City government announced that it would be phasing out native English teachers.


Having paid out the largest ever recorded ransom for a ship to Somali pirates in 2010 – $9.5m for the Samho Dream – South Korea got tough on pirates in 2011. The Korean navy stormed the hijacked Samho Jewelry, killing eight pirates and capturing five. Somali pirates threatened to kill any Korean sailors captured in future, after which it was announced that all Korean ships passing through the Gulf of Aden were to get a pirate-proof citadel.

Extreme weather

Storms caused landslides in Seoul in July. A month earlier Typhoon Meari had caused the Bridge of National Defense to collapse. Flooding also occurred in the DPRK, though the North Koreans decided to digitally alter one picture of the floods.

Believe it or not

Hanbok designer Lee Hye-sun, barred from the Shilla dining room
Hanbok designer Lee Hye-sun, barred from the Shilla dining room

One of Seoul’s top hotels, the Shilla, run by Samsung family member Lee Boo-jin, turned away hanbok designer Lee Hye-sun from their restaurant – for wearing hanbok.

President Lee Myung-bak announced that he would wear thermal underwear for the winter to save electricity.

A British girl obsessed with Korean culture had her tongue surgically lengthened to help her speak Korean better.

It was revealed that Gangnam is worth more than Busan, at least in respect of property values. But for those of us who have never willingly set foot there, Gangnam felt the need to hire a goodwill ambassador: singer / actress Jang Nara.


The EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement came into force on 1 July, despite hitches in the Korean translation. It was good news for upscale shoppers, as Hermes slashed its prices by 10%. Frozen Belgian samgyeopsal started finding its way into Korean shops.

Kim Sun-dong (foreground), a Democratic Labor Party lawmaker, sprays tear gas from a canister at Vice Speaker Chung Ui-hwa in front of the Assembly speaker’s podium on 22 November. Nocut News via Joongang Ilbo
Kim Sun-dong (foreground), a Democratic Labor Party lawmaker, sprays tear gas from a canister at Vice Speaker Chung Ui-hwa in front of the Assembly speaker’s podium on 22 November. Nocut News via Joongang Ilbo

The US congress approved the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement on 12 October in a move which coincided with President Lee’s visit tp the US. The Korean assembly finally reciprocated on 22 November, despite a tear gas canister being set off by an opposition assemblyman.

Financial Sector

The Lone Star / KEB saga almost came to an end, with Lone Star agreeing to reduce its sale price to Hana by 11%. A Seoul court had earlier found Lone Star guilty of stock manipulation in 2003, meaning that under Korean law the fund would have to sell all but 10% of its stake.

HSBC announced plans to sell its retail operations, and Standard Chartered survived a strike caused by its plans to introduce performance related pay.

Several Savings Banks were shut down or collapsed. One bank had 60% of its assets invested in just two projects, massively in excess of its limit (20% of capital per borrower). Two savings bank officials committed suicide, and it was alleged that a former official at the Financial Supervisory Service had received payoffs in order to overlook questionable lending practices at one savings bank.


The new Maersk Triple E container ship
The new Maersk Triple E container ship

Maersk Line ordered the world’s largest ship from Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Co. Ltd.

Korea joined the $1 trillion trade club in 2011, as the sum of imports and exports reached 13 figures. Half a billion dollars worth of those imports was coffee.

Korail asked Hyundai Rotem, manufacturers of the KTX-Sancheon bullet train to recall it after rather too many breakdowns.

Hyundai-Kia achieved record market share in the US car market, and the Hyundai logo joined that of Samsung and LG in the illuminated advertising hoardings at London’s Piccadilly Circus.


Kim Jong-il's funeral car - a 1976 Lincoln Continental
Kim Jong-il's funeral car - a 1976 Lincoln Continental
  • Park Wan-suh, author, 20 October 1931 – 22 January 2011
  • Richard Rutt, priest and academic, 27 August 1925 – 27 July 2011
  • Park Tae-joon, founder of POSCO, 29 September 1927 – 13 December 2011
  • Kim Jong-il, dictator, 16 February 1941 – 17 December 2011

Blogosphere and social networking

Some of the Worldwide Korea Bloggers on their Jeju trip
Some of the Worldwide Korea Bloggers on their Jeju trip sought to use the blogosphere to promote Korean culture and tourism by launching its Korea bloggers programme. Half a dozen bloggers were rewarded with a trip to Jeju-do, including Paul Matthews and Anna Marie Cole.

In the UK, new bloggers included Anna Marie Cole of Kimchi Seoul, Kiejo Sarsfield’s Chilli & Lettuce, plus the Korean Class Massive, Konglish Kitchen and k-pop fansites too numerous to mention.

Further afield, Koreanindie and the Korean Culture Report were launched, along with Subject Object Verb.


  • Part 1: Cultural stories including heritage, food and film
  • Part 2: More cultural stories, focusing more on pop culture and national branding, plus some tourism

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