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[Editorial] ‘Gangnam leftists’

As Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon announces tomorrow the schedule for the Seoul residents’ referendum on free school meals which is likely to be held on Aug. 24, he will be most anxious about how the so-called “Gangnam leftists” would react to his policy of limiting the benefits to only children from low-income families. Gangnam leftists, according to Korea Herald columnist Kim Seong-kon, refer to leftist activists residing in the affluent southern districts of Seoul.

The free school lunch question has become a most ideologically divisive issue across the country, pitting liberals/ progressives in favor of universal benefits against conservatives calling for paid meals for students of the higher income brackets. The conservative ruling Grand National Party, after initial wobbling, has come in support of Mayor Oh whereas the opposition Democratic Party which dominates the Seoul City Council is out to defeat him, one of the GNP’s presidential hopefuls, through the residents’ vote.

Oh was reelected last year thanks to a wide margin of support in Gangnam after a neck-and-neck race with Han Myung-sook. He could count on as strong backing from the conservative electorate in the richer sections of the capital city in the first-ever referendum. But a significant variable has emerged over the past year with the distinct growth of Gangnam leftists who think along liberal political lines while they remain affluent.

It could be a part of the general trends in today’s Korea where people choose their political cause regardless of their economic status and do not hesitate much to abandon their traditional loyalty to parties while political groups move rather liberally between one end of the ideological spectrum to the other in pursuit of popular support. The Gangnam leftists also include lower-middle incomers who are forced to live in the more expensive southern section because of better educational environment for their children.

In order to save the referendum, more than a third of the eligible voters should cast their ballots, and then more than a half of the voters should support it if the mayor’s limited benefit proposal (which would provide meals for the poorer 50 percent) is to be adopted. For some time, ideological polarization has progressed too rapidly, raising the level of tension in Korean society. The appearance of Gangnam leftists means social diversity as well as stability, with the retreat of left-right boundaries in various sectors, and their positive participation in the Seoul referendum next month will significantly help correctly identify the people’s collective will about the free lunch issue.