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Political awakening of teens

In the face of the Park Geun-hye scandal, 18-year-olds speak up, demand voting rights

Based on South Korea’s current legal standards, Yoon Kyeong-ah is considered too immature to form a political opinion or vote in elections. But the 18-year-old high school senior from Anyang, Gyeonggi Province, believes otherwise.

She may be immature in some aspects of life, but is fully aware of what has been going on in her country over the past few months, said Yoon. 

“I came here to show that we (students) have a voice in society,” Yoon told The Korea Herald on Nov. 19, when she joined tens of thousands of protesters at a massive rally in central Seoul against President Park Geun-hye.

“I couldn’t just stay home watching the president’s irresponsible attitude.”
Two high school students hold banners and candles during the fourth Saturday rally against President Park Geun-hye in central Seoul on Nov.19. (Yonhap)
Two high school students hold banners and candles during the fourth Saturday rally against President Park Geun-hye in central Seoul on Nov.19. (Yonhap)
Amid the bizarre and shocking scandal involving Park and her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, South Korea is witnessing the political awakening of an unlikely demographic -- teenagers.

The anti-Park rallies -- held every Saturday since late October, with its turnout peaking at 2.3 million on Dec. 3 -- have been a telltale sign of their increased interest in politics.  

The Nov. 19 protest took place two days after the national college entrance exam. It drew a conspicuously larger group of teen participants. Many of them were in school uniform and some local media outlets described this new breed of protestors as “the legion of school uniform.”

Some of the teen protestors were even more outspoken than their older counterparts, speaking confidently of their rights as citizens on makeshift stages and podiums on moving trucks. They expanded the discussion about lowering the voting age.

“Youths and teens are participating more and caring more about current affairs,” said Kim Ji-yoon, also 18, who came to the Nov. 19 candlelight vigil after her college entrance exam.

Unlike their counterparts in many other countries, 18-year-olds in South Korea are not allowed to vote. They are even banned by law from joining political parties or expressing political opinions continuously to affect any election.

The law has been challenged by proponents of an earlier voting age in the past. But the Constitutional Court has displayed a conservative stance on the issue, rejecting the first appeal in 1997 when the minimum age was 20. It cited that the young “lacks the discernment” and is “immature” when it comes to making political choices. The same reason -- when the voting age was 19 -- was echoed in 2014. In Korea, 18 year olds are seniors in high school while 19 is when they are legally stipulated as adults.

Among the 38 nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Korea is the only nation stipulating voting rights at 19, while 32 member states grant suffrage to those 18 years and older, with Austria at the even earlier age of 16.

Neighboring Japan has lowered its voting age from 20 to 18 in July. Around the globe, 147 countries have set the voting age to start at 18 years. In 2005, Korea revised down the age from 20 to 19.

Supporters of the law revision argue that teenagers are “conscious” of state affairs and that they should be allowed to form their political opinions from an early age.

“The logic of the opponents is flawed. When a teenager turns 19, they don’t just become enlightened all of a sudden and know who to vote for. Allowing teens to participate in political activities at an earlier age can help them learn” said Choi Seo-hyun, the secretary general of a teen organization called Hope.

The civic group led teen’s rallies, financially supporting transportation fees for the students living outside of the capital so that they could participate in protests in central Seoul, with donations from citizens.

“Besides, youths have actively played their part in social issues including the state-authored textbooks and the Sewol ferry disaster. History shows that the young were always at the forefront of rallies to fight for their rights,” Choi added.

High school seniors who demand voting rights highlighted that the older generation can also have “flawed” political stances.



“Not all adults are ‘mature’ enough to make political choices. Look at those 50s and 60s loyal to Park regardless of what she did. Though we are young, we are willing to speak out about state matters as citizens of South Korea,” said Kim Ji-yoon, 18, at a rally held on Nov. 17. “I would like to vote for the right leader.”

Political circles are highly divided over voting age. Lowering the voting age is favored by the liberal opposition and opposed by the ruling conservatives for their own political interests. That is why some experts are skeptical that the election law can be changed anytime soon.

According to a latest poll by Gallup Korea, the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea garnered 57 percent support among teenagers and those in their 20s, while the ruling Saenuri Party saw only 5 percent of support from this demographic group.

This year again, lawmakers from opposition parties -- the Democratic Party, People’s Party and Justice Party -- have proposed a motion to grant suffrage to those who are 18. But the bill has been in limbo, lacking a major political push.

“Eighteen-year-olds can legally get married, obtain their driver’s license and even serve the military. They of course can have political opinions and make political choices,” Rep. Kim Kwan-young of the People’s Party told The Korea Herald. He was among the 23 members of the opposition party who proposed the bill.

A politics professor at Myongji University, Shin Yul, also pointed out that the political climate should be taken into account, as in Korea, voting results are often said to reflect regionalism, school relations, and kinship.

“I’ve seen students who are much cleverer than some adults during the protests. However, a failed attempt to invite the 18-year-old students to ballot can turn high schools into a political battlefield,” Shin said. “It may not be a good idea to infuse such voting culture to young voters so early as they may easily be swayed.”

A liberal professor from Seoul National University, Cho Guk, argues that lawmakers should grant voting rights to the teenagers, citing the world trend.

Students played some key roles in several movements in the past, such as in the Gwangju Democratic Uprising in 1987 against the authoritarian regime led by then President Chun Doo-hwan.

In 2008, when thousands gathered to protest against the import of US beef due to fears about mad cow disease, a big portion of the rally-goers were students holding candles.

After the 2014 Sewol ferry incident resulted in more than 300 dead or missing -- most of them high school students on their way to a field trip -- teens also took to the streets to condemn the government for its mishandling of the disaster.

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)
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