Last year, it seemed like the dominant victory of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) in the South Korean National Assembly elections had paved a clear path for the party’s victory in the presidential election scheduled for March 2022. Starting with its unexpected victory in the 2016 National Assembly elections, the DP has won four consecutive elections including the 2017 presidential election and 2018 local elections as well as 2020’s general election. It was the first party to have such a winning streak since South Korea’s democratic transition in 1987. Some of the party’s supporters, and even its opponents, cautiously predicted that this could be the beginning of a decades-long reign of the Democratic Party.
The key to the party’s success was that young voters in their 20s and 30s joined traditional DP supporters in their 40s and early 50s to clinch electoral victories for the DP and President Moon Jae-in, who came to power under the slogan of “equal opportunity, fair process, and righteous result.” Even as scandals started to rock Moon’s presidency, many young voters chose to vote for the DP over the conservative United Future Party (UFP), since renamed the People Power Party (PPP) after its electoral defeat last year. According to a joint media exit poll after the 2020 National Assembly Elections, 56.4 percent of voters in their 20s and 61.1 percent of voters in their 30s voted for the DP, whereas the UFP received 32 percent and 29.7 percent respectively. Many younger voters who strongly supported the impeachment of conservative President Park Geun-hye continued to believe that a “deep-rooted evil” needs to be addressed to change Korean society. In 2020, they gave another chance to the ruling party, which promised to bring about that change.
Almost a year after the parliamentary election in 2020, however, the DP decisively lost to the PPP in by-elections that determined the next mayors of Seoul and Busan, South Korea’s first and second largest city, respectively. The fact that will haunt the DP the most is how many young voters have broken away from the party. According to exit polls in Seoul, an overwhelming 72.5 percent of male voters in their 20s voted for former Mayor Oh Se-hoon from the PPP, second only to female voters in their 60s or older as Oh’s strongest support bloc. Female voters in their 20s was the only group other than males in their 40s where the DP won, with a narrow margin of 3.1 points between the DP and PPP candidates.
Among the younger voting bloc, male voters in their 20s withdrew their support for Moon and the DP early on. This group has been the weakest youth link for the DP since the beginning of the Moon administration; just 47.7 percent of the group voted for the DP in the 2020 legislative election, while 40.5 percent voted for the conservative UFP, compared to 65 percent of male voters in their 40s voting for the DP. Many young men pointed to recent discussions on gender and feminism sparked by the #MeToo Movement in South Korea to explain their move away from the DP and Moon. Many Korean men in their 20s feel discussions on gender issues are unfair to them, that they are being penalized for problems created by older generations. They subsequently withdrew their support for Moon, who promised to become a feminist president.
Contrary to young men, women in their 20s and 30s remained loyal to Moon and his party with the expectation that gender equality would be achieved under their governance. Younger women were viewed as the core support bloc for the DP. Approval ratings for Moon in this key demographic, however, plunged right before the by-election this year, with one poll showing a massive 30 percent drop in his approval rating among women in their 20s compare to a poll conducted a week earlier. This may be because throughout the primary and campaign during the by-election, key members of the DP exalted the legacy of former Mayor Park Won-soon, whose suicide following sexual harassment claims sparked the by-election for Seoul’s mayorship.
The victim of late Mayor Park’s sexual harassment also made a public plea stating she would not be able to return to her job if the next mayor was from a political party that distorted facts and damaged her reputation. She also pointed out that the term “person who claims to have been victimized,” coined by Democratic Party members to refer to her, was a form of secondary victimization. Her complaint prompted the resignations of three legislators who had used the term from the DP’s election campaign, including a former spokesperson for Moon and a prominent feminist activist who came up with the term to describe the victim last year.
In both Seoul and Busan, the by-elections were ignited by two Democratic mayors’ sexual harassment allegations. Against that backdrop, insensitive statements and actions taken by members of the DP alienated young female voters. However, many didn’t feel supported by the PPP either. The level of disenfranchisement felt by young female voters in their 20s can be seen in the exit polls: 15.1 percent of female voters in their 20s and 5.7 percent of female voters in their 30s decided to vote for third party candidates or independents. That is being interpreted as young female liberal voters who could no longer vote for the DP voting for minor feminist candidates to get their point across.
If there is anything that unifies both young female and male Koreans, it would be their dislike for kkondae, the Korean equivalent of “boomer,” which describes an older person serving in a management position who frequently makes condescending comments about a younger person or an entire younger generation. Possibly unbeknownst to the DP, which has always viewed and presented itself as a struggling, liberal warrior in a political playing field that favors conservatives, many younger voters consider the DP to be the dominant political party, and even worse, kkondae.
In South Korea, where industrialization and democratization were rapidly achieved in a few decades, different age groups have markedly different political narratives. For senior voters who were born before or right after the Korean War, many of them consistently vote for conservatives, giving them credit for South Korea’s economic growth and industrialization. On the contrary, the age group known as Generation 586 – the generation of Koreans who are now in their ’50s, went to college in the ’80s, and were born in the ‘60s – is the backbone of the DP’s political identity. As college students in the 1980s, Generation 586 played an instrumental role in South Korea’s democratization in 1987, and many of its student leaders became career politicians in their 30s. Generation 586 in the last 20 years has not only grown to be the biggest political force, but the most influential socioeconomic age group in South Korea. They are followed by people in their 40s, who pride themselves on being the most politically progressive age group. This generation actively used the internet and podcasts to engage in politics as soon as they graduated out of intense student movements in the 1990s.
But both older conservatives and relatively younger liberals share on thing in common: the tendency to scold or preach to South Korean youths in their 20s and 30s. In their eyes, the younger Koreans have it easy: they are not forced to head to earn hard foreign currencies for their impoverished nation, nor are they on the street risking arrest or death asking for the democratization of their home. When youngsters complain about hardships they face and come up with terms such as “Hell Joseon” to describe South Korea, older Koreans tend to see it as baseless whining.
On a contrary, younger Koreans point to the perceived hypocrisy of Generation 586 and the current administration heavily supported by middle-aged Koreans. The younger generations lost hope that the equal opportunity, righteousness, and fair process promised by Moon can be achieved under his administration, as instrumental figures for reforms met disgraceful and hypocritical ends. The popular face of legal reform had to resign under allegations of using his connections and prestige to benefit his own family, and the face of economic and housing reform abruptly resigned after it was revealed that he hiked the rental fee for his house just few days before a new bill to limit such hikes would be enforced.
To make things worse, 73 members of the National Assembly from the DP and its allies introduced a bill that would provide preferential treatment and funding for education, employment, and medical services for spouses and the children of people who are designated as democratic movement participants. The bill further angered the younger Koreans, as it was seen as a self-serving act by Generation 586 politicians, who already hold immense political power. The bill was withdrawn amid criticism after damage has been already done. And of course, scandals involving Korea Land and Housing Corporation killed any remaining hope many young Koreans, many of whom already gave up owning their home and started to put every savings ,and even debt, into volatile stock markets and cryptocurrency.
To many younger Koreans, these actions were the embodiment of what it means to be a kkondae, who lectures on how the world should be and how young people should act to achieve equity, while they themselves act contrary to what they have said.
As polls started to indicate young Koreans would vote against the DP, progressive pundits in their 40s and 50s started to criticize Koreans in their 20s and 30s, without seriously considering why they were withdrawing their support. The pundits called younger Koreans stupid, rockheads, and inherently “far-right,” having been raised by a neoliberal regime. Park Young-sun, the DP candidate for Seoul’s mayorship, joined in by stating that people in their 20s did not support her because they lack historical experience compared to older generations. All of these comments strongly resemble the types of comments young Koreans would get from kkondae mangers at work – assuming they are lucky enough to have a job, given high levels of youth unemployment.
Of course, this does not mean the conservative PPP is not seen as kkondae, or that it is thought to be any fairer to younger Koreans. To many young Koreans, the PPP is a safe protest vote precisely because they have become utterly irrelevant, with outdated platforms. The PPP’s predecessor parties barely held onto one-third of the National Assembly seats and have not been able to offer a single meaningful presidential candidate of their own. While the DP traditionally portrays the PPP as the old guard, supported by a coalition of powerful lawyers, chaebols, and powerful media, in the eyes of younger Koreans it is the DP that has actually become a powerful juggernaut. It controls much of national politics and local politics, with 67 percent of local mayors and 80 percent of provincial and metropolitan-level councilors.
Without direct memory of either South Korea’s rapid economic growth or its democratization process, younger Korean voters in their 20s and 30s are developing a political identity quite different from older generations, who are bound to major moments of South Korea’s history. Young Koreans of course would have important agendas of their own, ranging from a stagnant economy and uncertain future in a country with the lowest birth rate in the world to a widening gap on discussions on gender. Their views are likely to evolve over time through historical moments of their own, but it is unlikely that either of the two major parties can claim this generation as their own, as they did with previous generations. With just one year left before the next presidential election, South Korean political parties have homework to do if they want to come up with ways to understand and win over this new swing voting generation.