Moon Jae-in has triumphed in the South Korean presidential election with over 40 percent of the vote, according to exit polls. But the liberal leader’s solid victory can’t patch over deeper political wounds. Just as the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union left British society divided and Donald Trump’s election polarized Americans, the impeachment of Park Geun-hye has split South Korea. While more than 75 percent of South Koreans supported impeaching President Park, the process splintered conservatives into two parties and left the young, who have become increasingly politically active, divided from the elderly, who were Park’s strongest supporters.
Economic discontent widens this generational chasm. South Korea’s divided labor system has limited the job prospects of 20-somethings. Despite one of the highest levels of per capita college graduates in the world, young South Koreans face high levels of unemployment and feel constrained by an economy that has been declining and social norms that, in their opinion, are outdated. Many 20-year-olds have come to refer to their homeland as “Hell Chosun,” a reference to the rigid social hierarchies of one of Korea’s most famous past dynasties.
But older South Koreans are no happier. While the Park administration expanded the social safety net for the elderly, South Korea continues to have the highest level of old-age poverty in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And as Korean society continues to age, the financial burdens posed by the elderly will only increase, with greater costs to care for them and large questions about how to replace their labor force in the economy. The government has begun engaging with business and labor unions about adjusting the high wages that make older workers less employable to extend the lifespan of the existing workforce. Previously, many South Korean workers retired in their 50s, making way for younger workers; now the young and old feel they are in direct competition over jobs.
There’s a growing sense of crisis and discontent in South Korea. But unlike the United States or France, voters haven’t responded by moving rightward. Instead, after nearly a decade of conservative rule, the election produced a resounding victory for Moon, leader of the left-wing Democratic Party of Korea. His closest rival wasn’t a conservative, but the centrist Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party. Against the background of Park’s scandals, polls suggest both politicians are viewed by supporters as trustworthy, with sincere concern for social justice. Both Moon and Ahn broke from past traditions and cast aside promises of GDP targets. Instead, they have focused more on the need to develop a more just society.
In the past, the left has been no more successful than conservatives in avoiding corruption, as scandals surrounded the relatives of both former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. But unlike the right, it is now seen as a potential agent of change. The left is still rooted in the democracy protests of the 1980s where many of its leaders first came of age, while conservatives are seen as tied to the system that was built up under Park Chung-hee. Moon has tried to play to these sentiments by talking about the need to address the “deep-rooted evil” in South Korea.
But older voters aren’t so keen to paint the past black. Born in the 1950s when South Korea was still a relatively poor country, they came of age during the authoritarian years of Park Chung-hee and worked to transform South Korea into the country it is today. In Park, they saw a strong leader who transformed the economy and defended the country against North Korea. In his daughter, Park Geun-hye, they found a successor to his legacy and have largely remained loyal to her as they did her father. Only half of those in their 60s favored her impeachment. In contrast, 92 percent of those under 30 wanted to see Park ousted.
In the election, those over 60 were divided. They primarily supported either Hong Joon-pyo, a fast-rising staunch conservative, or tactically supported Ahn Cheol-soo against Moon Jae-in, who they view skeptically for his allegedly soft views on North Korea. For older Koreans, the right represents stability and prosperity. Yet the system that benefited those in their 60s has led to the current struggles of the young. Economic development under authoritarian governments left a legacy of close relations between government and business. Those ties helped spur one of the most successful runs of economic growth in the 20th century but also left scandal trailing each administration and has now culminated in the impeachment of a president. While the prior scandals were related to family members or close confidants rather than the presidents themselves, Moon now faces unprecedented scrutiny and pressure to snap those ties. South Koreans rank institutional reform second only to economic reform in priorities for the next administration.
South Korea has seen slowing economic growth in recent years and rising levels of income inequality, coupled with one of the world’s lowest birth rates. The 2012 presidential campaign that Park Geun-hye ultimately won was fought on the need for economic reforms, especially around the chaebol, the large family-run conglomerates in South Korea. While the chaebol have become highly successful international companies, as they have moved abroad they have increasingly contributed less to job growth in South Korea, and many Koreans see the privileges that they enjoy as limiting the ability of other businesses to grow and flourish.
To improve the economy, the Park administration had been working on structural reforms to address overcapacity in steel, shipping, and shipbuilding. But the populist movement in Korea — as in economically depressed areas of the West — is most interested in labor market reform that could give more Koreans, especially the young, access to good jobs. South Korea currently has a two-tiered labor market of permanent workers who enjoy good pay and benefits with strong job protections and temporary workers who receive few benefits and significantly lower pay. The system limits both job growth and opportunities for workers in the temporary market.
This system works against those in their 20s. In contrast to the United States and Europe where the middle-aged feel their jobs are threatened by immigrants and the young, in South Korea the system protects middle-aged workers to the detriment of the young. It is the middle-aged workers who have secure jobs and continue to benefit from a promotion system that favors age over performance. The privilege given to children from wealthy families in access to the best jobs adds to the frustration for those in their 20s, who have already had to withstand a grueling and competitive national education system that is widely believed to produce unhappy childhoods. For those fortunate enough to get a lower-tier job with a chaebol, their personal life becomes strained from long workweeks extending to more than 50 hours, combined with a lack of prospects for advancement.
With young South Koreans struggling in a socioeconomic system set up by their parents and grandparents and the economy in need of reforms, why are they turning to the left rather than to the populist nationalism that has blossomed in other countries?
In part, it’s because South Koreans have already for the past decade tried going with conservative leaders, in hopes they would improve the economy and create jobs. Instead, the challenges for those in their 20s grew as the economy slowed. They are now turning to the left for solutions.
It helps that the backlash against immigrants that has animated the right in the West is not a major factor in South Korea. In contrast to France and the U.K., where immigrants account for more than 12 percent of the population, in South Korea they only accounted for around 4 percent. As a result, the populist movement is focused on jobs and corruption rather than a threat to national identity.
This appeals to a younger generation that, even as it largely remains conservative on security issues, tends to be progressive on social issues. On the whole, South Korea is still fairly socially conservative, and in a recent presidential debate, only Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party expressed support for LGBT rights. While her opponents, including Moon, expressed their opposition to homosexuality, Moon later walked back his comments, saying there should be no discrimination based on sexual orientation, after backlash on social media.
After millions of people took to the streets calling for the removal of Park Geun-hye, there is a strong desire for change in South Korean society. That’s only going to leave a short window for Moon and his team to take advantage, though, as South Koreans tend to sour on their presidents fairly quickly. Bridging a generational chasm to meet the demands of both fresh graduates and pensioners may be an even tougher challenge than dealing with a fretful nuclear neighbor.
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