The Korean Presidential Elections: A Clash of Generations

2012 has been a crucial year for presidential elections around the world, with over 25 presidential elections having already taken place and arguably the biggest yet to come when Americans go to the polls in November.  The Republic of Korea’s presidential election has been kept out of the spotlight despite the fact that it is a fascinating race, boasting an array of presidential prospects that each symbolise the political ideals of different generations of the Hermit Kingdom.

Images courtesy of (left to right): Jinho Jung © 2010, some rights reserved; Mimacds © 2012, some rights reserved; Office of the Greek Prime Minister, © 2011, some rights reserved

Due to social changes that accompanied the exponential economic growth Korea experienced over the past 60 years, Korean society is notorious for its generational divides. The conservative elderly generation, whose political views are shaped by its experience in the Korean War, is a group with a considerable power due to its size and massive voter turnout. Then, there are the members of the ‘7080’ generation, who are now in their 40s to 50s, that drove out the tradition of dictatorships in Korea through protests in their university years. Lastly, there is the generation of 20 to 30 year olds who have grown up with more affluence and privilege than their older counterparts in a wealthy, developed, and internationally prominent Korea. The mentalities and political priorities of each of the three generations are divergent, as each generation spent their formative years in a Korea that was either a third world state, a developing country under military dictatorships, or a first world nation with the 11th largest economy in the world, respectively.

Currently, Ms Park Geun-hye, who is serving her fourth term at the National Assembly as the chairwoman for the conservative Saenuri (or New Frontier) Party, is leading in multilateral comparison polls (conducted by Realmeter, a Korean agency specialising in opinion polls), receiving 37.6% of public support, with her opponents Mr Moon at 23.3% and Mr Ahn at 27%.

Ms Park’s large public support is enabled by the older and more conservative generation of Korea, who are proponents of laissez-faire economics, a practice which allowed the ‘chaebols’, or large conglomerates, to grow and boost Korea’s economy and national status during previous regimes. Still influenced by their memories of the Korean War, the over-60s are also keen on maintaining close ties to the U.S., while keeping North Korea at a distance.  Another key component in Ms Park’s success is the legacy of her father, former President Park Chung-hee, who is regarded as one the greatest leaders in Korean history, due to the astonishing industrial and economic growth experienced in Korea under his regime.

However, the inheritance of her father’s legacy acts as a double-edged sword for Ms Park, as she is often derisively referred to as the ‘dictator’s daughter’ by her opponents. Moreover, the human rights abuse scandals surrounding her father’s 17 year-long presidency are issues frequently raised during debates and interviews and cost her the nomination as presidential candidate in 2008 against the current President Lee Myung-bak.

The second candidate, Mr Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic Union Party, more or less embodies the ‘Arab Spring-esque’ democratic student movement, which swept across the country in late 1970s and 1980s against Korea’s dictatorial regime. Mr Moon, although native to the traditionally conservative Yeongnam region, has always been an outsider, as he was born to parents who were North Korean refugees. During his undergraduate studies, he was arrested and expelled for organising student protests against President Park’s dictatorship, and then became a human rights attorney and a founding member of the ‘Hankyoreh’, a progressive newspaper that actively criticised the various authoritarian regimes that followed Mr Park’s, in 1988.  In 2003, he acted as the campaign manager for then presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun and became his chief of staff after Mr Roh was elected into office. Staying true to his liberal history, party affiliation, and familial history, Mr Moon is a proponent of the “sunshine policy” (A Korean liberal foreign policy approach coined by Nobel Peace Prize-winning former President Kim Dae-jung, whose aim was to ameliorate North-South relations by encouraging cooperation and offering economic assistance).  Mr Moon opposes the market domination of the aforementioned ‘chaebols’ and seeks to implement more economic and welfare programmes to aid the middle and working classes. Mr Moon’s liberal platforms and his active participation in the student protest movements resonate with Korea’s 7080 generation, who fought alongside him as students, but his pro-North Korean policies can pose as a major obstacle to his bid, as South Korean public opinion has become icy after recent incidents such as the sinking of ‘Cheonan’ navy ship and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island by the North in 2010.

The last to announce his bid is the independent candidate, Mr Ahn Cheol-soo, currently second in polls and incredibly popular among younger voters. Mr Ahn boasts an impressive resume, having been a practicing physician, professor, programmer, and the founder of Ahn Lab, Inc., an antivirus software company. He is also a philanthropist who donated more than $200 million to charitable causes and is on the board of directors for POSCO, the South Korean steel and engineering corporation founded by President Park. Furthermore, as a popular lecturer in universities, he went on a “Youth Concert” tour, which proved to be a smash hit. Yet his seemingly progressive policy pledges such as limiting executive authority, pushing for a better balance of power, and engaging in dialogues with the North or developing a new economic model, are relatively similar to those of Mr Moon, and as a result many in the media and DUP politicians have tried to coerce Mr Ahn to join forces with Mr Moon and play ‘kingmaker’. Mr Ahn has not yet expressed interest in merging his candidacy with Mr Moon and the poll results show that his presence in the presidential race works to Ms Park’s advantage as the liberal vote is split between the two men.

So why exactly is Mr Ahn, despite his ‘theoretical’ and ‘abstract’ pledges and lack of political experience, popular among young voters? The answer lies in the generational divides of South Korea. It is indeed true that all three candidates, including the conservative Ms Park, are pledging welfare reforms and softer approaches in dealing with North Korea, but younger Koreans are concerned about their communication with the government. Ms Park, despite her moderate conservatism is known to have a rigid and uncompromising approach in politics, which can make government-citizen dialogue difficult. Mr Moon also is seen to be too engrossed in the liberal ideals of the 70s and the 80s and his pro-nation and anti-American presence on the Korean peninsula is deemed too radical. Essentially, the two mainline candidates are products of the ‘developing Korea’, in which one either followed the guidance of the regime or rebelled against it with radical ideas, but younger Koreans obviously want someone different, who is not from their parents or grandparents’ generation. They want an approachable government and a leader who can keep up with trends and technological innovations that play a large role in younger Koreans’ lives.  The campus-hit Mr Ahn fits the bill.

As a result of the generationally divided support for each candidate combined with the fact that Korea is expecting a 76% voter turnout (provided by Real Meter), the election in December should be an interesting and a close race, the result of which will cement the Korean generation gap for the foreseeable future.

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