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How do S. Korean 20-somethings view young politicians’ rise and fall?

By Lee Jung-Youn

Published : Sept. 10, 2022 - 11:00

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Lee Jun-seok, the former leader of the ruling People Power Party, speaks at a press conference held in Gwangju, Sunday. Lee is one of the representative young politicians who emerged during the 20th presidential election period eariler this year. (Yonhap) Lee Jun-seok, the former leader of the ruling People Power Party, speaks at a press conference held in Gwangju, Sunday. Lee is one of the representative young politicians who emerged during the 20th presidential election period eariler this year. (Yonhap)

It was during the 20th presidential election that the young generation suddenly surged as a tie-breaking vote, making the two largest parties desperate to entice them.

The People Power Party focused on male voters in their 20s -- previously a reliably liberal demographic -- with Lee Jun-seok, who was the youngest party leader in the South Korean history at the time. The Democratic Party recruited Park Ji-hyun, a 26-year-old anti-sex crime activist, to shore up its appeal to young female voters.

After the election, however, the political standing of Lee and Park changed drastically. Lee was suspended as allegations of receiving sexual bribery were revealed amid an internal party feud, and Park was denied the chance to register as a candidate for the party leadership.

Replaceable accessories

"What parties wanted was a simple, obedient token that would bring a young image to the party," said Han Soo-bin, a 25-year-old graduate student. All they have done so far -- or have been allowed to do so far -- was just repeating the claims of older politicians with a younger mask, she said.

Jang Mi, a 23-year-old college student, said she feels like young politicians were considered no more than “a simple accessory to add a fresh, young image to ossified parties.”

“Apart from the qualification and capability of the individual young figures, the overall attitudes of the older politicians and the press which assess them are seriously outdated.” They considered young figures as a simple disguise to lure young voters, she added.

“It is true that several young politicians had shown many shortcomings and flaws, but newcomers cannot grow into competent politicians within the current system that does not tolerate people until they mature,” continued Jang.

Kwon Su-min, a 24-year-old office worker, had similar thoughts.

“(Young politicians) were not introduced to the party by proving themselves to be useful politicians. They were just a marketing strategy.”

Kim Hyun-woo, in his early 20s, used similar description, “a high-selling political product.”

“To use them as an embodiment of youth and innovation, parties will come up with another young politician when necessary. But when they don’t behave, they will be kicked out again,” said Kim.

They don’t represent all of us

Some people said that the concept of “young politicians” itself is questionable.

What is the standard for being a young politician? And do they really represent younger voters?

“Politicians should represent every citizen evenly, but young politicians now are unequally distributed in both age and gender. For example, there are no representative leftist young male politicians that I can think of,” said a 22-year-old college student who wished to stay anonymous.

“What’s worse is that this imbalance distorted images of young generations. All men in their 20s are believed to be conservatives and while women are believed to be progressive, but this dichotomy is clearly wrong.”

Another 22-year-old, surnamed Lee says that the term “young politicians” is a term used by older generations, as such figures are described as “young” simply because they are younger than more established politicians.

Others say that these fresh faces in politics do not necessarily represent the interests of those in similar age groups, and that the parties’ use of younger figures leads to oversights.

“Simply letting people take important political positions just because they are young is not ‘young politics.’ That way, only the ones who imitate and follow old politicians will get a chance. Rather than that, I believe politicians with a certain amount of influence and critical mind will be helpful, apart from their physical ages,” said 25-year-old Hwang Min-hyeok.

Others appear fatigued by the way younger, more high-profile politicians are recruited, and called for such individuals to be vetted for their capabilities, rather than simply based on the public appeal they may have.

We need inclusiveness

Although many showed skepticism toward young politicians, most 20-somethings The Korea Herald spoke to agreed that change was necessary.

Kim Yong-hyun, 24, pointed out the lopsided landscape of politics as a major problem. “Politics must always reform itself. It does not mean that they should unconditionally lower the average age of politicians but means that we should end the monopolization of a certain generation.”

A 22-year-old who wished to stay anonymous said the self-righteous attitude of older politicians was the main obstacle to achieving an inclusive political environment.

“The older generation disparages young people as inexperienced, but at the same time they also demand perfection. It’s such a waste that all attempts at something new are perceived negatively,” they said.

A graduate student called Han called for further inclusiveness, not just in terms of age but also in terms of ideology, social status and so on. “It is true that Korean politics should include younger figures than the current state, but before that, building an inclusive political environment should be the ultimate goal.”

This inclusiveness, however, is not the task solely for the older generations. It should be multilateral, said Kwon. “Young people haven’t experienced traumatic events that make up large parts of older generations’ memories, such as war and military dictatorship. Politics must embrace every member of a country, so we also need to make efforts to understand them.”

“Regardless of political orientation, it is necessary to survive in the political arena for a considerable amount of time to draw meaningful social changes, but it looks like people who speak straightforwardly and differently cannot survive in Korean politics for long. We really need a more inclusive, open-minded political environment,” added Kwon.