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Youth and Korean politics

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Courtesy of Angga Kusuma
Courtesy of Angga Kusuma

By David A. Tizzard

Speaking of the French Revolution, the English poet William Wordsworth remarked, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven." The youth are a vital part of a functioning society and creating a vibrant and effective democracy. Young people are capable of overturning authoritarianism and enacting changes in power.

If they become disenfranchised or disengaged from politics, if their voice is lost, it is society as a whole that suffers. If young people feel that their voices are neither being heard nor taken seriously, they will often walk away from political conversations. The problem then becomes circular if politicians feel there are no votes to be won from that section of the population because they will not seek to engage them or speak to their concerns and desires.

Yes, some in society are distrustful of youth, believing them to be idealistic, impetuous, radical, and lacking the sagacity that comes with wrinkles, stiff knees, and grey hair. The same stereotypes and reservations, however, could just as easily be placed at the feet of the elderly: they are dogmatic, stubborn, and driven by tradition and self-interest.

South Korean politics has for a long time been a gerontocracy: a state governed by old people. A lot of this is influenced by Confucian practices and beliefs that value age as well as more legal obstacles, including the fifth constitutional amendment enacted by Park Chung-hee's military government in 1962 which states the South Korean president must be at least 40 years old. The average age of all 12 Korean Presidents upon leaving office is 67 years old, the eldest being Syngman Rhee at 85 and the youngest being Chun Doo-hwan at a relatively spritely 58.

Much of what passed as acceptable in the erstwhile days of military rule has since been overturned: No longer are musicians compelled to write patriotic dirges on their albums and people are free to voice their political opinions without fear of physical reprisal. But will we see young people given an opportunity to make further change in Korea? The average age of the 300 politicians elected in the most recent election was 54.8 years, with lawmakers in their 20s and 30s only accounting for a measly 4.3 percent. And, most of them are unsurprisingly rich: the average lawmaker reportedly has assets of 2.2 billion won. So while many young people struggle for money, jobs, affordable housing, and hope, many of their elected representatives live entirely different lives. Almost as if the Oscar-winning movie Parasite was trying to tell us something.

A new group of young politicians are starting to make waves in Korean politics, however. Whether they represent a sea-change, a response to technological advancement and the rise of social media, or just a passing trend, we shall have to wait and see.

Perhaps the most high profile young politician of late has been the conservative party's new leader, Lee Jun-seok. At only 36-years old, Lee is the party's youngest ever leader and has arrived amid a surge of popularity for his once-beleaguered party. A recent Realmeter survey of 2,000 adults showed just over 40 percent approval ratings for the conservative opposition party and only 28.6 percent for the ruling democratic party. President Moon Jae-in even took the time to congratulate Lee on his victory and hoped it might signal a change for not just Korean politics but the country more broadly.

Whether one agrees with Lee's politics or not, and many won't considering that this week he used the ubiquitous phrase "sigi sangjo" (more on that in a future piece) to express his reluctance to discuss the proposed anti-discrimination law, the important thing is this: his arrival will surely encourage other parties to at least consider doing the same. If the conservatives run with a young fresh-faced 30-something, the democrats and the other parties are certainly going to talk about promoting their own youth and listening to how they might challenge their opponents.

Kang Min-jin, 26, of the Justice Party has demanded more youth in politics and spoken out against establishment practices and corruption. Like President Moon, she also took the time on social media to congratulate Lee on his victory despite her disagreement with his politics. Jang Hye-young, 34, has long been a voice for the oppressed and under-privileged. This week, she celebrated on Twitter as a petition for the aforementioned and much-desired anti-discrimination law reached the benchmark 100,000 signatures. More and more people it would seem are sensing that such laws are not necessarily political, but rather about ensuring equality and fairness for all citizens of the country without discrimination. Ryu Ho-jeong, 28, meanwhile has among other things been demanding more protection and rights for those with tattoos and those who make their living in the industry. In a press conference held on the lawn of the National Assembly, Ryu revealed her own tattoos while also calling for the Supreme Court to overturn laws that make criminals of many citizens with ink.

Young people in society often find themselves marginalized from politics and decision making, seen as lacking the skills and experience to bring about meaningful and significant change. But they can be a creative social force and a dynamic source of inspiration and innovation. The country's youth can serve as a catalyst to reimagine the nation's political system, economic disparities, and social values.

It is unlikely that elderly politicians will hand these positions of power to the Korean youth willingly ― instead they will have to stand up and demand it. And so that's what we should encourage if we truly value democracy. Don't tell young people that it's all meaningless and that their voice doesn't matter. It does matter. And while the elderly might sneer at them and their efforts, the youth might actually find a lot more support from their peers than they could ever imagine. And regardless of what side of the political aisle one chooses to sit, this can only be a good thing for South Korea and the future.


Dr. David A. Tizzard (datizzard@swu.ac.kr) has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies. He is a social/cultural commentator and musician who has lived in Korea for nearly two decades. The views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.




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