So what’s behind these increasingly diverging political views? The main reason is that young people are playing a completely different political game than older generations. About a decade ago, all age groups—including the so-called 386 generation, who were born in the 1960s and went to college in the 1980s—were engaged in the same kind of process. As democratization in Korea is closely tied to relations with the United States and North Korea, important elements of this process are bound to be North-South security issues and pro or anti-Americanism. Before the advance of the 386 generation in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Korean politics were strongly influenced by the older generation, which pursued hard-line security policy and pro-Americanism.
Gradually, as the power of the 386 generation increased, soft security policy and anti-Americanism became more prominent. And now, with South Korea’s 386 generation in their 40s, the country’s new younger generation of 20 and 30-somethings are growing up having never experienced the struggle for democratization. Raised in a fully-democratized civil society, they have very different policy views on North Korea and the United States, and have moved beyond the traditional ideological security battles of a decade ago.
So what does this mean for how the South Korea-US alliance issue will play out in next year’s presidential election? It’s still too early to say what will happen for sure, but one thing we can be certain of is that security perceptions are going to play a much different role now, and it’s going to be especially difficult to determine how those in their 20s and 30s will respond to security issues.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
There’s already evidence of this from last June’s local elections, in which younger generations responded unexpectedly to the March 2010 Cheonan sinking—they seemed far more interested in the social implications. Security concerns did indeed arise among the younger generation over the Cheonan incident, but largely because they believed that the government had tried to use the sinking as a political tool, and was trying to stifle opposition.
If there’s no strong provocation from North Korea, public perceptions of the alliance will probably be a constant variable in 2012—as long as the alliance remains a security issue, younger generations will be unlikely to react strongly to it. However, if it becomes a social issue, things could be very different.
With this in mind, it’s vital that political parties work to serve younger generations’ demands. At present, young people simply aren’t particularly motivated by democratization or national security issues. As a result, if political parties want to mobilize and appeal to young people, they will need to offer them genuine social policy choices. South Korea’s politicians need to step up and be ready to embrace this changed reality.
Woo Jung-Yeopis a Research Fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
(This is an edited version of an article pubished here by the Center for US-Korea Policy and the Asia Foundation).