Young Koreans apathetic to elections, say government failing them

By AFP   April 9, 2024 | 07:22 pm PT
Young Koreans apathetic to elections, say government failing them
In this picture taken in Seoul on April 3, 2024, attendees react during an event where young voters exchanged their thoughts on the importance of the youth voting and on South Korean politics. Photo by AFP
Outnumbered by older voters, under-represented in parliament, ignored on the campaign trail: South Korea's young say the political system is failing them, and some are fighting back before Wednesday's election.

The poll to choose the National Assembly's 300 lawmakers will be the first vote in South Korean history where voters aged 60 and older will outnumber those in both their 20s and 30s, official data show.

This is partly demographics. South Korea has the world's lowest birth rate and is a rapidly ageing society, with the number of marriages in freefall for decades and single-person households now the norm.

Politics is also dominated by older men. Male MPs aged over 50 account for more than 75 percent of the current National Assembly. Just 5.6 percent of candidates for Wednesday's election are under 40.

Lee Min-ji, a 23-year-old student at Seoul's Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, has spent the weeks before the election making hand-written posters trying to get young people to vote.

Like many young South Koreans, she points to a string of recent scandals as evidence government is failing the young. That includes 2022's Halloween crowd crush in Itaewon, which killed more than 150 mostly young people and was blamed on a litany of official oversights.

"Young people are dying every day, while it's considered a problem that (we are) not getting married and not having children," one of her posters says, claiming officials unfairly hold young people responsible for a demographic crisis that has been decades of bad policy in the making.

"I'm not sure when they will stop considering it a problem that (babies) are not being born when even the children and young people who are alive now... cannot be protected," she told AFP.

Youth vote?

Just like many countries, voter turnout in South Korea is lower among the young. Just 57.9 percent of eligible voters in their 20s and 30s cast ballots in the last general election in 2020, compared with 79.3 percent for voters in their 60s and 70s, official statistics show.

Only slightly more than 50 percent of voters between 18 and 29 said they planned to vote in Wednesday's election "no matter what", according to the latest Gallup Korea poll.

Experts say this is linked to growing dissatisfaction among young people.

While South Korea is seen as a global cultural powerhouse and is known for strong semiconductor exports, domestically the younger generation is struggling, with cut-throat competition in education, fewer job opportunities and sky-high housing costs.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Koreans aged between 10 and 39, according to official statistics.

The older establishment class "does not really understand the precarious situation of the youth" said Gi-Wook Shin, a sociology professor at Stanford University, which is a key cause of rising "generational conflict."

As the country ages, old people become ever more significant politically. This "will continue to alienate young people from politics and voting", Linda Hasunuma, a political scientist at Temple University, told AFP.

"Many already feel that substantive change is not possible with the existing system," she said.

"Because older voters will turn out to vote, we may see policies that overrepresent their interests at the expense of younger voters."

Yu Jung, 26, lost her younger sister in the Itaewon crowd crush and she felt many young people were too stressed and overworked to engage in politics -- even though the existing system was failing them.

Yu Jung, 26, who lost her younger sister in the Itaewon crowd crush, poses during an interview with AFP, April 3, 2024. Photo by AFP

Yu Jung, 26, who lost her younger sister in the Itaewon crowd crush, poses during an interview with AFP, April 3, 2024. Photo by AFP

Her late sister, Yeon-ju, had to manage multiple part-time jobs alongside her studies and job preparations on just six hours of sleep a day.

The state's failure to protect a 20-year-old marine doing his mandatory military service, who died last year during flood relief work, also featured in campaign posters created by student activists. Reports claimed he was not issued a life jacket.

"When you are called up (for military service), you're a son of the nation. When it's time for them to take responsibility, it's: 'who are you?'" one poster urging young people to vote said.

Lee Cheol-bin, 30, lost his life savings in a "jeonse" housing scam, which disproportionately affect young people and led to at least four suicides last year. He urged young people to vote, even if they felt they were "erased" by politics as usual.

"The reason why we have to vote despite everything is... because we can't live like this," he said at an event in Seoul aimed at bringing out the youth vote.

"It does not make sense for us to live a life where we can literally just disappear at any moment."

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