The Koreas

How South Korea’s Liberals Lost the Youth Vote

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The Koreas

How South Korea’s Liberals Lost the Youth Vote

In a dramatic reversal of fortunes, young people in South Korea are increasingly conservative.

This summer, koreaBANG translated a story about a young woman (in her 20s) lamenting the ridicule she faced for admitting to her friends that she voted for a conservative political candidate in a local election. One friend equated her vote to supporting Ilbe, a community comprised of mainly young, far-right conservatives.

Seen in isolation, this story may seem like an ordinary political brouhaha between friends. But, put into context, it is indicative of a shift in political attitudes among South Korea’s youngest voters.

In South Korea–where voter turnout rates are unusually high for a country without mandatory voting–where one stands politically is, to say the least, an important matter. For the better part of South Korea’s post-war political history, students were at the forefront of protests against authoritarian governments; indeed, there is a legacy of “the students” supporting the anti-establishment cause. After the democratic transition, opposition to authoritarianism transformed into electoral support for liberal party candidates. Young South Koreans, like young people elsewhere, have supported those nominally representing a “progressive” cause. Recent data, however, suggests times are changing.

The first change regards attitudes towards North Korea. The Center for Public Opinion at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies finds that young South Koreans are “security conservatives.” A report on the public’s response to North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013 finds that respondents in their 20s align very closely with those in their 60s.  This, the report emphasizes, is not an anomalous finding. “One of the most consistent findings of Asan surveys is that Koreans in their 20s identify as security conservative, and often agree very closely with Koreans in their 60s and older on issues related to North Korea.”

But it isn’t just on security issues that young people are leaning to the right. As the woman from the story cited above attests, young people are also voting for conservatives.

True, a majority of young voters supported Moon Jae-in in the 2012 presidential election, but it is questionable whether support for a liberal president means support for the liberal party. Gallup Korea survey data suggest that youth support for the liberal party is declining. Data for the first half of 2014 shows that people ages 19-29 split their support between the conservative Saenuri Party and the liberal New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) at 29 percent and 28 percent respectively (35 percent do not support a party). In the run-up to the 2012 election, Gallup polls showed the Democratic Party held an 18 point lead over Saenuri in the 19-29 age cohort. If elections were this year, the liberal party would have serious cause for concern.

The cause of this shift in attitudes is debatable. Support for NPAD, across all age cohorts, is low. This is largely a consequence of the liberal party’s constant infighting and inability to connect with voters. Even young people, usually the most progressive in any democratic society, take into consideration their pocketbooks and material conditions. Young South Koreans may simply find it hard to support a party that can’t keep its ducks in a row. If NPAD is capable of presenting voters with concrete policy options, things may change.

Steven Denney is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.