Major political parties have replaced their leaderships recently, some of which has been necessitated by the outcome of the June 12 local elections in which the ruling Democratic Party scored a resounding victory.
The most common, conspicuous aspect of the latest leadership changes is that all the major parties are now led by “men of the past,” or “old boys” as they are described by the local media.
The election of Sohn Hak-kyu, a 71-year-old former four-term lawmaker, as the new head of the minor opposition Bareunmirae Party on Sunday capped off the massive comeback by veteran politicians.
Before Sohn, there was Lee Hae-chan, a 66-year-old seven-term lawmaker and a former prime minister, who took over the helm of the ruling party. Lee’s former colleague and former presidential candidate Chung Dong-young, a 65-year-old four-term lawmaker, became leader of the Party for Democracy and Peace.
In addition, the conservative main opposition Liberty Korea Party which suffered the most devastating defeat in the June elections, is led by interim leader Kim Byong-joon, 64, a former professor who was the chief policy adviser during the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration.
Besides Sohn, all the other party leaders who will exert considerable influences on national politics and party politics – they will especially sway the nomination of party candidates for next year’s parliamentary elections -- are sexagenarians.
Of course, age should not be the only yardstick for assessing politicians. That’s more true than usual in a quickly-aging society like Korea, where life expectancy is growing and more in their 60s and 70s are economically and socially active than ever. But the above mentioned politicians are not called “men of the past” or “old boys” only because of their biological ages.
All of them reached the peaks of their political careers a long time ago: Sohn served as health and welfare minister during the Kim Young-sam administration, was Gyeonggi governor and has headed a political party three times. Besides, he once retired from politics after an election defeat.
Chung was the current ruling party’s presidential candidate 11 years ago. Lee served as prime minister during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Both Sohn and Lee also had presidential ambitions, and at least Sohn and Chung may have their sights set on the next presidential election in 2022.
In other words, the three have been involved in presidential politics for decades. This offers a stark contrast to a country like the US, where most candidates – Democrats and Republicans alike – hand over the baton if they lose the nomination contest or the presidential race.
And compare the Korean political scene with places like France, Austria, Belgium, Ireland and Canada in which young politicians in their 30s and 40s are taking up national leadership posts.
Again, biological age is not the only thing that matters in politics, but the situation here speaks of two points: One is that the political system and culture allow those who tasted the sweetness of power to continue to stick to their vested interests. Party members and voters need to think twice about this.
The other point is that the nation lacks a good breed of ambitious and able young politicians – on the level of the late three Kims – Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil – who shot up to national fame in their 40s. The current political environment --dominated by factional strife, ideological and regional animosities -- may not be conducive to the rise of young politicians, but young generations themselves are partly to blame. Why don’t we have the political likes of the founders of venture firms likes Naver and Kakao?
A little relief is that the recent leadership contests in the major parties put some young politicians into their decision-making executive councils – two in their 40s in the Democratic Party and two in their 30s in Bareunmirae.
It is yet to be seen how the young members of the leadership bodies -- headed by the much older, seasoned and patriarchal bosses -- would fare. That may give clues as to the prospects for the rise of a new breed of young politicians.