Foreign Correspondence: Lessons from the South Korean Election

Anastasia Burton

So, I’m sure the whole world and their cat knows about the British general election. What most don’t know is that there was a general election in South Korea first, on May 9th 2017.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As part of the Exeter University study abroad scheme, and their partnership with EWHA Women’s University, I have had the privilege of studying in South Korea for the last 8 months. My time here has really given me a much deeper insight in to the political situation on the peninsula and Korean language classes have meant that following Korean media outlets and political debates is at least a bit easier.

Amid high tensions on the peninsula it is a crucial time for South Korean politics, and a dynamic time to be in the country. Adding to the situation is the fact that the last South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, was impeached for alleged influence peddling and corruption. Not to mention the fact that she’s now facing a potentially long stretch in prison.

So, much like the UK, South Korea has been presented with a period of possible political instability. The public response, however, has been very much different to that of the UK. In fact, in South Korea the public is being galvanized and led by the youth. The University of Exeter’s partner university EWHA led the protests back in September, which gave way to the largest peaceful protests in South Korea’s history. On the 3rd of December an estimated 1.7 million people marched through the city demanding Park’s resignation.

The protests highlighted an intergenerational gap in political opinion.  A gap that is clearly demonstrated in the opinion polls. Much of the older generation witnessed a period of political and economic reconstruction following the Korean War. This generation were seen through by Park Guen-hye and her family, they were considered the forefront of this struggle for prosperity. Therefore, to meet those calling for her impeachment was also a crowd of Park’s supporters, albeit one much smaller. A 56 year old woman quoted by Bloomberg sums up the divide; “Our generation went through all sorts of hardships…The young people today enjoy the fruit of our economic endeavours.” This highlights a divergence in priorities. Whilst the older generation are largely concerned with national security, the young are focused on their quality of life and in particular their economic opportunities.

Moon Jae-in, of the Democratic Party, took the most significant margin of victory in the history of South Korea’s presidential elections. Taking 41.08% of votes compared to the 24.03% of his closest competitor. According to a Gallup poll he holds a 53% approval rating among respondents ages 18 – 29, whilst only 17% of the over 60s support him. The key to his lead lays in the fact that the turnout rate in South Korea declines with age, the reverse is true in the UK.

Although he has been very vocal in terms of national security and foreign policy he has also focused heavily on fiscal measures, promising to inject $8.9 billion dollars into job creation. Such a big financial commitment is motivated by high public demand to address unemployment. Crucially, unemployment is an issue facing many of the young people who make up a high proportion of the turnout. Moon Jae-in knew that to stand a chance of winning he had to focus on the issues raised by young people.

Whilst data for the 2017 election is not yet available, back in 2015 the voting turnout for 18 – 24 year olds in the UK was 43%, with a slightly higher 54% for 25 – 34 year olds. Meanwhile, in the 2012 South Korean elections 69% of people in their 20s voted, and 81% of those in their 30s. The result of the 2017 election is expected to be the result of even more young people flooding the polls. The political participation of South Korean youth speaks volumes. Just as the lack of youth participation in the UK also does.

The youth of today in Korea are faced with some of the same issues seen in the UK. High youth unemployment, rising house prices and stagnant wage levels. The term ‘Sam-po generation’ has been used to describe the young in Korea, for allegedly giving up on certain aspects of life due to their poor economic situations. But the polls say differently. The polls say that the young are leading the way in the political arena, in fact doing the very opposite of giving up.

Rather, it is the youth in the UK who appear to have given up. Disengagement with politics can be easy, particularly when you’re dissatisfied with the status quo and the potential alternatives. In the UK, the Brexit vote has left many young voters feeling disillusioned.  Tellingly, the current election campaigns have missed out many of the key issues that matter to young people. As of yet I haven’t heard Theresa May talking about youth unemployment – one of the key issues facing university graduates today. Although we can rest assured that her government will be ‘strong and stable’, whatever that may mean. Yet South Korea’s political situation demonstrates a new kind of hope. It’s all very well and good saying that ‘young people can help alter politics’, but it’s another thing seeing it work in practice, and more importantly believing it. There is a lot to be learned from the South Korean situation, and a lot to be changed within our own.

This article is the first in the new series written by study abroad students. Edited by Daisy Roberts, Foreign Correspondent for the Falmouth Anchor.