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South Korea’s Political Springtime

SEOUL – The ascension to power of the pudgy 29-year-old Kim Jong-un in North Korea has grabbed headlines around the world, but the most important story involving Korean young people and politics is taking place in the South. There, young voters are becoming angrier, more politically active, and increasingly hostile to the old established parties. This demographic challenge to South Korea’s status quo suggests a “liberal” awakening that could completely alter the country’s political landscape.

The election last autumn of the activist Park Won-soon as mayor of Seoul demonstrated the growing strength of the youth vote, which took the ruling Grand National Party completely by surprise. Young people mobilized themselves spontaneously, using all the tools of social networking and modern communications, to turn out not only voters their own age, but countless others exasperated with South Korea’s rigidity and insulated opportunities.

The sudden surge in young voters has called into question the long-presumed victory of the governing GNP’s likely candidate, Park Guen-hye, in the presidential election due to be held in December. Indeed, many political analysts now regard the GNP as a sinking ship, particularly after a staffer to one of the party’s MPs allegedly masterminded a cyber-attack on the National Election Commission’s Web site to prevent young voters from getting to the polls.

While some pundits and politicians now suggest that the GNP could collapse sooner than corrupt and poverty-stricken North Korea, Park Geun-hye, an iconic woman in South Korean politics, has made it clear that she will not abandon the GNP. To further highlight her resolve, Park became the GNP’s interim leader last month.

In Park’s eyes, abandoning the GNP simply because of the party’s deepening unpopularity would show her to lack principles and trustworthiness. Her refusal to strike out on her own is probably the main reason why she continues to lead various opinion polls. Nevertheless, recent polls show that a majority of voters distrust the incumbent government and the ruling party.

Indeed, Ahn Cheol-soo, a successful entrepreneur turned pro-reform professor at Seoul National University and the main backer of the city’s new mayor, has now rocked South Korean politics by dropping broad hints that he might become a presidential candidate. Ahn has already become a lightning rod for all of the country’s anti-Park and anti-President Lee Myun-bak forces, attracting young people as well.

Ahn’s most obvious merits are his personal history of overcoming severe challenges and his modest demeanor. His signature commercial achievement – the development of anti-virus software – made him immensely wealthy. His decision to give away a large portion of his fortune has made him immensely popular.

More importantly, Ahn knows how to talk to people who are frustrated by South Korea’s rigid economy and business environment, particularly South Korean youth. He also seems cognizant of the growing power of social networking in politics. Although the 49-year-old professor remains formally uncommitted to running for office, his frankness and tolerance aids his ability to communicate a clear political message of the need for fundamental change. Rarely in South Korean politics has a candidate’s personality played so important a role.

Ahn’s economic beliefs, formed mainly by his experiences as a CEO fighting against the entrenched power of South Korea’s chaebol (vast, politically well-connected industrial conglomerates), has rekindled a debate on both the right and the left about whether the chaebol are still capable of leading the country’s economy effectively.

In an era of growing inequality and joblessness, Ahn’s criticism of the chaebol is both smart economics and smart politics. Economically frustrated youth welcome Ahn with loud cheers wherever he appears, because he expresses their anxiety that the chaebol are stifling new companies that could create much-needed jobs.

One big obstacle that Ahn will face if he decides to run is the need to organize a political party, or else to forge a coalition among South Korea’s fractured opposition parties. Neither is an easy task, and the precedent of incompetence established by Japan’s Democratic Party since it defeated the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party may make some South Korean voters reluctant to abandon the familiar and battle-tested GNP. But, despite these worries, it is difficult to imagine that Ahn would stand aside this April while voters’ demand for him continues to soar.

The near-certainty that Ahn will join the fray is not good news for the already-unstable GNP, especially for Park. In one of her very rare appearances on a popular television talk show on January 2, she called Ahn “a very popular professor with young people.” Indeed, while she acknowledged that young men and women have “rebelled” against the established parties, Ahn supposedly spurred them to do so through a series of lectures called “Youth Concert.”

While the “Ice Princess,” as Park is nicknamed, will undoubtedly retain her core voters, more than 20 million South Koreans now access Twitter or Facebook on their cellphones, and follow politics on them. These are new or disenchanted voters; how they vote in April – and how many of their fellow citizens follow their lead – will determine whether South Korea has its own political spring.

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