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.