Newly enfranchised students ‘a force’ in South Korean election

But academic expresses concern about first-time voters treating enfranchisement as a ‘TikTok moment’

February 27, 2022
South Korean youth
Source: iStock

On 9 March, South Koreans will vote for their next president, putting an end to a scandal-ridden, neck-and-neck race between a conservative and a Democratic candidate.

When the five-year term of president Moon Jae-In ends, the mantle will most likely go to the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung or his rival, the conservative People Power Party’s Yoon Suk-yeol.

But to many in the country, the election is significant for another reason: it’s the first time that 18-year-olds will be able to vote in a presidential election since the voting age was lowered from 19 in 2019.

Legislation passed in January this year also makes 18-year-olds eligible to stand in local and parliamentary races – bringing the age limit down from 25 – although experts are doubtful about how many might actually seek an office.

Still, Kim Dong-no, a sociologist at Yonsei University, said the youth vote would be a “significant” factor in the coming election.

“It is hard for me, however, to predict how their participation will give impact on the election.”

While he said it was “pretty clear” that Korea’s older generation would likely vote for the conservative candidate, Mr Yoon, and that those in their forties would support the Democratic contender, Mr Lee, “this traditional bifurcation of voting pattern does not apply to the younger generation – under-thirties – any more”.

First-time and younger voters will be looking for assurance that the next president can tackle the problems that are making their futures “insecure and pessimistic”, he said.

“The younger generation is not very much concerned with political ideologies but more with their everyday necessities and economic well-being, like job opportunities and housing prices.”

Jun Yoo, a professor in the department of Korean language and literature at Yonsei, said many voters were unimpressed with both candidates, who had been caught up in scandals over nepotism.

“Given how contentious the elections are between the two front runners, Yoon and Lee, I would think they will do everything to pander to the 18-year-olds to get their votes,” he said. “I would think parents who are really concerned about the political climate will also be influential in getting their 18-year-olds to vote.”

But Professor Yoo said that for some young people, enfranchisement was little more than a badge to advertise on social media.

“I talked to a couple of my students, and they all said that a large number of 18-year-olds will vote not because of politics but because for instagrammable photos [or] TikTok videos to show off their voting rights.”

David Tizzard, an assistant professor of Korean studies at Seoul Women’s University, said, “there is some apathy among young people towards high-level Korean politics”, something that “hasn’t helped bring a sense of hope or optimism” despite a “promising” young voter turnout in last year’s national election.

“It’s not just about the ability to vote. There needs to be education alongside it. Students must be informed about what voting means and the process of democracy. They also need to be educated on the basic ideas and principles of each candidate. This is where we might say Korean education is failing somewhat…this would come through education, but it’s not hitting the mark yet.”

But according to Yule Kim, a 27-year-old student of literature at Yonsei, his generation – people in their twenties and thirties, what is called the “MZ generation” – does not need any enticing to come to the polls.

“I don’t agree with the statement that younger voters are apolitical – my point of view is that they’re overly political,” he said. Because of Korea’s strict pandemic measures, most young people have been cooped up at home, unable to meet in person. As result, he explained, they have interacted on online platforms, exchanging increasingly polarised views.

In particular, the election has drawn divisions along gender lines. “My female friends think Korean society has severe sexual discrimination. They hate [Yoon] and describe him as Korean Trump,” he said.

But neither group is thrilled about their candidate. “The common ground is that this election is pretty frustrating – the two main candidates, both have a lot of drawbacks,” he said.

One issue that has not come up much in the election, despite its incredible importance in South Korean society, is higher education.

In particular, academics noted candidates’ reluctance to bring up Korea’s college entrance examination – a political hot potato.

“Both candidates will like to keep away from the issue of the college entrance exam system, since there is no perfect system that can satisfy all applicants and their parents,” said Professor Kim, adding that any stance on this by either candidate “may induce a fierce protest from the opponent”.

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