Their generation ousted South Korea's military regime. Now they have to win over Gen Z
SEOUL — Presidential elections in South Korea this coming Wednesday could have implications for its ties with the United States, North Korea and China. But the vote is likely to hinge on domestic issues.
In previous elections, politicians largely campaigned along ideological or geographical lines. This time, the race is playing out along generational ones.
People in their 20s and 30s make up about a third of the vote — and candidates really want to win them over.
A central issue is how these younger voters feel about the generation in power. Many of those in office are known as the "86 generation," because they were college students in the 1980s and born in the '60s.
Many of the 86ers were pro-democracy activists, who ousted a military dictatorship that ruled the nation from 1961 to 1988. The generation now commands the heights of South Korean business and politics, including the outgoing administration of President Moon Jae-in and the governing Democratic Party of Korea.
"If young voters join hands with those aged 60 and above, the opposition will win the election," predicts Park Sung-min, a Seoul-based political consultant. But "if they side once again with those in their 40s and 50s," as they did in the last presidential election five years ago, he adds, "the 86 generation of the Democratic Party will extend their reign."
Moon cannot seek re-election as South Korea's constitution limits the presidency to a single five-year term. Lee Jae-myung is running with the liberal Democratic Party to succeed him, facing off against Yoon Suk Yeol of the conservative People Power Party — both born in the 1960s — as well as about a dozen other candidates from smaller parties.
The 86ers ousted a dictatorship
Activists of the 86 generation's fight for democracy culminated in nationwide protests in 1987 known as the "June Struggle," which led to the first democratic elections in decades of military rule. The movement has inspired pro-democracy activists around the world, especially in Asia, including Myanmar and Hong Kong.
But a series of scandals during the Moon administration has led many young South Koreans to accuse the 86ers of hypocrisy, and of becoming the kind of political establishment they once fought.
Some 86ers, including Seoul-based civic activist Lee Jinsun, argue that the pro-democracy activists had difficulty living up to their professed ideals even before they entered politics.
For Lee and many others, that entrance was the 2000 parliamentary elections. Many of the activists, she says, wanted to remain independent of the main political parties. So they made a pact among themselves.
"We promised — with romantic idealism, in retrospect — to join whichever party would nominate us," she recalls. "And once we get elected, leave the party and convene a third party."
The plan quickly fell apart once the activists started getting funding and organizational backing from the main parties.
"People who used to be friends started attacking each other from opposite parties," she says, "within just two or three months."
There are allegations of scandals and betrayals
That betrayal seemed to foreshadow many more recent ones under the Moon administration.
Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, for example, advocated equal opportunity, but resigned in 2019, after his wife was accused of cheating to get their daughter into an elite school.
Lee argues that activists were focused more on the goal of ending the dictatorship and less on how they went about it. Activists saw equality and diversity of opinions within their movement as luxuries and vulnerabilities when fighting a dictatorship, she explains.
"We started our activism outside the boundaries of the law, although we later became a public movement," she says. "But even after that, we never sufficiently educated ourselves about liberalism or republicanism."
The Moon administration promised to tackle one of the nation's hottest political issues: skyrocketing housing prices. But his officials were accused of speculating in real estate.
Lee Jeong-mi is an 86er and former labor activist now with the minor, left-of-center Justice Party. She says that, in their own minds, the 86ers are still fighting the old establishment, when in fact they themselves have become the new one.
"They enjoy all the privileges in areas such as their children's education, or real estate," she observes. "But they still believe they are serving the mission of fighting evil and bringing justice. So they feel like: 'Why come after us, when other people are even worse?'"
Another scandal involved Park Won-soon, a former mayor of Seoul, who killed himself in 2020 after being accused of sexually harassing his secretary.
Lee Jeong-mi says this was another sign that the 86ers never really understood gender equality.
"Activist groups were mostly led by men," she points out. "They trivialized sexual violence within their organizations, under the pretense of protecting these groups in the fight against the military dictatorship."
South Koreans call this kind of hypocrisy "naero nambul," which means that when the 86 generation does it, it's romance, when anyone else does, it's adultery.
Lee Dongsoo, who is 33 and heads a youth policy think tank in Seoul called Policrew, acknowledges the 86 generation's contributions to South Korea's democracy. But he says that carries little weight with voters who are too young to remember the struggle for democracy, and see the 86ers as out of touch with the present.
"Current establishment politics has not been updated since the '80s or the '90s. It's still obsessed more with ideology than with the everyday life of citizens," he laments. "I think this is the main reason I and my generation have turned against the Democratic Party, and politics in general."
Lee sums up his generation's frustration at the lack of appealing political choices in the bluntly titled book, "I Don't Like the Liberals, and I Don't Like the Conservatives Either."
Lee adds that minor South Korean parties lack the organization and vision to attract young voters.
Three generations have vastly different experiences and views
Of course, it's not the only country where young voters face dwindling social mobility, feel alienated from traditional political parties or express disgust at what they see as baby boomers' hypocrisy.
But political consultant Park Sung-min says South Korea's generational divide is unique.
The 86ers' parents, he notes, survived brutal colonization by Japan and later, the Korean War. They also experienced rapid industrial and urban growth and a rising standard of living. The 86ers themselves overcame a military dictatorship. But millennials have only experienced life under an affluent democracy.
"Unlike the previous generations, this generation self-identifies as consumers and values individuals over organizations like country, people, or corporation," Park says.
In the last presidential election, young swing voters allied with the 86ers to oust the older ruling conservatives.
"But once it became obvious that the 86 generation had itself become the mainstream," Park explains, "the younger generation realized that they, too, have to be forced out."
NPR's Se Eun Gong in Seoul contributed to this report.
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