May 8, 2017 10:00 am JST

South Korea poll stirs political awakening among young

New generation rounds on cronyism and inequities of society

JOHN POWER, Contributing writer

Posters promoting leading candidates in South Korea's presidential election -- Moon Jae-in, Hong Joon-pyo and Ahn Cheol-soo -- hang side by side in central Seoul. (Photo by John Power)

SEOUL -- As South Korea prepares to elect its next president on May 9, Ban Jae-hoon, 27, feels politically engaged like never before. Of a generation that despairingly refers to their country as "Hell Joseon," a satirical reference to the country's oppressive feudal past, Ban is keen to make his vote count in a historic election.

For the first time since the establishment of free elections in 1987, South Koreans will vote to replace a leader, disgraced ex-President Park Geun-hye, whose tenure was cut short amid scandal and the eruption of popular protest. While every democratic president has been tainted by malfeasance implicating them or their family, Park, a conservative and daughter of a former strongman leader, was the first to be impeached and subsequently removed from office. Her ouster was the culmination of a sprawling corruption scandal involving a close aide, Choi Soon-sil, and many of South Korea's biggest businesses.

"Choi Soon-sil-gate highlighted the many causes that have led to South Korean society being known as 'Hell Joseon'," Ban, who works for a small insurance firm in Seoul, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "This has been a huge chance for young Koreans to realize the importance and seriousness of politics."

Although from an age group often assumed to be apathetic about politics, Ban's enthusiasm reflects a broader political awakening across his generation. In the aftermath of Park's demise, younger people have embraced the opportunity to air long-harbored frustrations with the stresses and inequities of South Korean society.

In a poll of 1,500 people commissioned by the National Election Commission late last year, 84% of South Koreans in their 20s said they would definitely vote in the upcoming election, an increase of almost 19 percentage points from before the last presidential vote in 2012. In another national survey, 90% of 20-something respondents identified themselves as "likely" voters, suggesting a desire to buck the trend of relatively low turnouts in past elections.

Desire for change

"It's because of our wish to live in a better society," Kim Ha-young, a 24-year-old student in Seoul, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"I think that the reason is young people's level of knowledge is increasing and our ability to tell right from wrong has gotten better. Especially in politics, the desire for change is high."

The opinion polls indicate that South Koreans in their 20s and 30s mostly favor liberal candidate Moon Jae-in, a former democracy activist and human rights lawyer who was narrowly beaten by Park in 2012. Polling at double the level of support of his conservative and centrist rivals, Moon appears likely to become the next president, heralding the end of nearly a decade of conservative rule.

As well as suggesting dialogue and engagement with North Korea, Moon has vowed to create hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs, boost social spending and rein in the exploitative business practices of the chaebol, the family-run conglomerates that dominate the economy, though many pundits question the feasibility and effectiveness of his policy.

"I will change the order," Moon said in April, in a broadside against conservative economic policies that he claimed had favored big business above everyone else.

"I will change the economic structure to one centered on the people, in which the government will invest in people, who will then improve the competitiveness of companies and the country."

While last year's anti-Park demonstrations attracted all ages, swelling to up to a million people on occasion, it was younger South Koreans who showed the least regard for the disgraced conservative leader. At the height of the rallies, Park had virtually zero support among those aged 30 and under, according to leading polls.

Even in a country where politics is routinely tainted by corruption and cronyism, the nature of Park's alleged misdeeds, which included colluding with Choi to solicit donations from large companies, struck a nerve among young Koreans who view their society as rigged in favor of a powerful few.

Influence peddling

The spark that ignited the scandal was Choi's use of her influence to gain her daughter a place at a top university, an especially galling revelation in a society where admission to an elite institution is considered one of the few paths to a well-paying job.

Despite living in the world's 11th-largest economy with a gross domestic product per capita comparable to New Zealand or Italy, many young South Koreans see themselves as the sampo generation, forced to give up three life events -- securing a good career, getting married and starting a family.

Last year, the youth unemployment rate hit a record monthly high of 12.5%, still lower than many developed countries but a growing concern in a society with a glut of college graduates and where until relatively recently, lifetime employment was the norm.

For those who do find employment, grueling work hours are common, often accompanied by meager pay and minimal security. After Mexico, South Korea had the longest work hours among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2014, with the average employee putting in 400 more hours annually than their German counterparts.

Government support for families is sparse by developed country standards. South Korea spends just over 10% of its GDP on social welfare, ranking second-last among the 35 OECD countries.

With many South Koreans feeling they do not have the time or money to start a family, the number of births and marriages recorded in the first five months of last year fell to its lowest since the government began collecting monthly statistics in 2000. The country's birthrate, 1.24 births per woman, is among the lowest in the world.

Nine out of 10 office workers and college students in their 20s said they empathized with the term "Hell Joseon" in a survey carried out last year by employment website Job Korea.

"I think in [South] Korea people are working almost like slaves," said Seo Seong-woo, a 24-year-old jobseeker whose last job at a plastics manufacturer left him battling depression, the result of 65-hour work weeks and a meager monthly salary of 1.5 million won ($1,320).

"They have no life -- always working for the company, always working for the higher-ranking person. They have no time to focus on themselves or their family. It's more like the military."

Seo hopes the election will mark the first step toward a fairer and more just society, where opportunity is spread more widely and corruption is not routine.

"Democratic government is made by people voting," said Seo, who lives outside Daegu, a city of 2.5 million people about 240km southeast of the capital. "From now on people will know their decision is important, so that they won't want to make the same mistakes. It is big progress."

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