Millennials and Generation Z’s views on the generation in power shape South Korea’s election : NPR
Photo by Kim Min-Hee/Pool via AP
SEOUL – Presidential Elections in South Korea Next Wednesday could have implications for his relations with the United States, North Korea and China. But the vote will likely depend on domestic issues.
In previous elections, politicians have largely campaigned along ideological or geographic lines. This time the race is played out along the generations.
People in their 20s and 30s make about a third of the votes — and candidates really want to convince them.
A key question is how these younger voters feel about the generation in power. Many of the officers are known as “Generation 86” because they were college students in the 1980’s and born in the 1960’s.
Many of the 86ers were pro-democracy activists who ousted a military dictatorship that ruled the nation from 1961 to 1988. The generation now dominates the heights of South Korea’s economy and politics, including the outgoing government of President Moon Jae-in and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.
“If young voters go hand in hand with those over 60, the opposition will win the election,” she predicts Park Sung-min, a Seoul-based political consultant. But “if they align themselves with the 40s and 50s again,” as they did in the last presidential election five years ago, “the 86th generation of the Democratic Party will extend its rule,” he adds.
Moon cannot run for re-election because South Korea’s constitution limits the presidency to a five-year term. Lee Jae-myung is succeeding with the liberal Democratic Party and taking on Yoon Suk Yeol of the conservative People Power Party – both born in the 1960s – and about a dozen others candidates from smaller parties.
The 86ers overthrew a dictatorship
The struggle for democracy by the ’86 Generation activists culminated in nationwide protests in 1987 that became known as the “June Struggle” and led to the first democratic elections in decades of military rule. The movement has inspired pro-democracy activists around the world, particularly in Asia, including Burma and Hong Kong.
But a series of scandals during the Moon administration has prompted many young South Koreans to accuse the ’86s of hypocrisy and becoming the kind of political establishment they once fought against.
Some 86ers, including Seoul-based civic activist Lee Jinsun, argue that pro-democracy activists struggled to live up to their professed ideals even before entering politics.
For Lee and many others, this was the 2000 general election. Many of the activists, she says, wanted to remain independent of the major political parties. So they made a pact with each other.
“We promised – in hindsight with romantic idealism – that we would join any party that would nominate us,” she recalls. “And once we’re elected, leave the party and convene a third party.”
The plan quickly fell through as activists began to receive financial and organizational support from the main parties.
“People who used to be friends started attacking each other from different parties,” she says, “within just two or three months.”
There are allegations of scandals and treason
This betrayal seemed to anticipate many more recent ones under the Moon administration.
Ex-Justice Minister Cho Kuk, for example, campaigned for equal opportunities resigned in 2019after his wife was accused of cheating to get their daughter into an elite school.
Lee argues that activists focused more on the goal of ending the dictatorship and less on how to do it. Activists see equality and diversity of opinion within their movement as a luxury and a weak link in the fight against dictatorship, she explains.
“We started our activism outside the bounds of the law, although we later became a public movement,” she says. “But even after that, we never educated ourselves enough about liberalism or republicanism.”
The Moon government vowed to tackle one of the nation’s hottest political issues: skyrocketing real estate prices. But his officials were blamed speculate in real estate.
Lee Jeong-mi is an 86-year-old former labor activist, now a member of the small, left-of-center Justice Party. She says that she believes the 86ers are still fighting the old establishment, even though they have become the new establishment themselves.
“They enjoy all the privileges in areas like their children’s education or real estate,” she notes. “But they still believe they serve the mission of fighting evil and bringing about justice. So you’re like, ‘Why come after us when other people are worse?’”
Another scandal involved Park Won-soon, a former mayor of Seoul, who killed himself in 2020 after being accused of sexually harassing his secretary.
Lee Jeong-mi says this is another sign that the ’86ers never really understood gender equality.
“Activist groups were mostly led by men,” she emphasizes. “They trivialized sexual violence within their organizations under the pretext of protecting these groups in the fight against military dictatorship.”
South Koreans call this kind of hypocrisy “naero nambul‘, meaning that if the ’86 generation does it, it’s romance, and if someone else does it, it’s adultery.
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Lee Dongsoo, 33, who heads a Seoul-based youth policy think tank called Policrew, recognizes the contributions of the ’86 generation to South Korean democracy. But that carries little weight with voters who are too young to remember the struggle for democracy and who see the 86ers as distant.
“Current establishment politics hasn’t been updated since the 1980s or 1990s. It’s still more obsessed with ideologies than with citizens’ everyday lives,” he laments. “I think that’s the main reason my generation and I turned against the Democratic Party and politics in general.”
Lee summarizes his generation’s frustration at the lack of attractive policy choices in the bluntly titled book: “I don’t like the liberals and I don’t like the conservatives either.”
Lee adds that smaller South Korean parties lack the organization and vision to attract young voters.
Three generations have very different experiences and views
Of course, it’s not the only country where young voters face declining social mobility, feel alienated from traditional political parties, or resent the hypocrisy of baby boomers.
But political adviser Park Sung-min says South Korea’s generation gap is unique.
The parents of the ’86s, he notes, survived brutal Japanese colonization and later the Korean War. They also experienced rapid industrial and urban growth and rising standards of living. The 86ers themselves overcame a military dictatorship. But millennials have only experienced life in a prosperous democracy.
“Unlike previous generations, this generation self-identifies as consumers and values individuals over organizations such as countries, people or companies,” says Park.
In the last presidential election, young swing voters allied with the 86ers to oust the older ruling Conservatives.
“But once it became clear that the ’86 generation had itself gone mainstream,” Park explains, “the younger generation realized that they, too, had to be displaced.”
Se Eun Gong from NPR in Seoul contributed to this report.