“THE PRICE good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men,” said Plato. Plato’s quote implies that a society full of politically ignorant people will be led by a government that fails to represent their interests. Unfortunately, South Korea is currently undergoing a similar situation. The 20th South Korean general elections will be held on April 13 of this year, but in fact, young people are reluctant to vote. Even though they realize the importance of voting as their civic duty, many denies to engage in political affairs. They are dominated by general weariness and underestimate the fact that active civic engagement in politics can change and shape the society they live in. The disease they are suffering from is called political apathy. Then, what must be done to encourage the young generation in South Korea to participate in politics?
Not enough vigor to participate
There is a popular term that characterizes contemporary South Korea: Hell Joseon, which was first popularized by young people in their 20s. According to Korean Exposé, the term defines South Korea as a place where “onerous education and service in the abusive military are the norm, and the only goal for the young is to become servants of the mighty corporations that rule the realm from its heart.” In other words, Hell Joseon represents a pessimistic perspective that views South Korean society as a place where those born with wealth and power, the so-called Golden Spoons, can easily establish high position while those from poor and vulnerable background, known as Waste Spoons, endlessly suffer to climb up the social ladder.
The problem is that young people living under Hell Joseon are not politically engaged. While they are the important socio-political agents that need to shape and manage the future Korean society, their weariness overweighs their political vigor. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2014 on South Korean Millennials (those between ages 18 to 33), only 22% agreed that “hard work is very important to societal progress” compared to 43% from those over age 50. Consequently, the young generation holds a more pessimistic view towards South Korea’s future than the older generation. Often hopeless about the society’s progress, South Korean youth is refusing to participate in politics.
In addition, South Korean voting turnout among young people is relatively low compared to their older counterparts. In 2013, South Korea’s National Election Commission conducted a research on voters’ perception towards the 2012 presidential election. A month before the actual presidential election, the Commission asked a random sample of 1,500 voters of all ages about their “willingness to vote”. The results demonstrate a significant difference between voters under age 29 and voters over age 60. A little more than half (65.7%) of those under age 29 answered that they were “actively willing to vote”, which was a turnout much lower than those over age 60 (92.3%).
Young people’s low political participation rate and their lack of interest in politics are also evident in the survey conducted by The Yonsei Annals on their degree of political interest. A total of 254 people aged 19 to 29 years old participated in the survey. While 64% of the total respondents showed their willingness to vote for the upcoming South Korean general elections in April, the other 36% answered either no or not sure. One of the main reasons why they would not vote was that they were not interested in politics. Also, while most of the respondents said that they have experience participating in political acts, such as voting, reading political news, discussing political issues, and studying related subjects, not many were actively carrying out these activities, as shown in graph 3. In addition, 44.5% of the respondents felt that they lacked knowledge on political issues in general (graph 4). However, 86.2% of them still believed that at least a moderate level of political interest is necessary (graph 5). Overall, while many respondents were aware of the importance of politics, not many were willing to get involved in it.
A problematic society with problematic politicians
Despite the harsh conditions the young generation is faced with, political participation of the 20s is low due to their political apathy. Under the question “What are the causes for political apathy among young civilians?” 61.8% of the respondents answered that they themselves were not interested enough to voluntarily search for political information. 49% of the respondents also answered that they were too busy that they have no time to be concerned about political affairs. According to Shim Eun-jeong (Researcher, Center for Future Politics), one of the reasons why political participation is low among young people in South Korea is that it takes longer time for them to become social workers than before. This means that, compared to their older counterparts, young people nowadays are faced with more rigid requirements that they must fulfill to be employed. Before becoming full members of society, young people must undergo cut-throat competition with each other for jobs. In contrast to the past, students nowadays have more to prepare other than their academic scores in order to get jobs, such as acquiring language scores, working as interns, and doing volunteer works. Because it takes longer time and more effort to become social workers and make ends meet, students are becoming more detached from politics. As a result, they tend to underestimate the importance of participating in political arena.
Furthermore, another main cause of political apathy of the young is the ineffective communication between politicians and young civilians. Even though many young people choose to exercise their voting rights during elections, they agree that they lack information about the candidates, which discourages them from reaching to the politicians. Some also believe that they have trouble understanding current political affairs. On January 2016, Hankyoreh asked several young voters “what does politics mean to you?” and one of them replied, “I have attended several policy debates held by the government, and it was like listening to a foreign language.” One of the reasons for such difficulty in comprehending political matter is that prior knowledge on politics is required to interpret political conversations which the young people in their 20s often lack due to their indifference towards politics. According to Toril Aalberg (Prof., Dept. of Media Sociology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology), one must “know who the politicians are, their positions in the political landscape, and also has to recognize political terminology and political metaphors.” Without active engagement in politics from the younger generation, they will continuously fail to understand or to take part in political debates, which will then further widen the disparity between the young and the politicians.
Consequently, it is partly the government’s responsibility to improve communication between the two groups. In South Korea, it is usually hard to find ways for the young generation to express their voice and to directly communicate with the government. This is because the communication between the two parties is usually one-sided. Although young citizens are regularly cognizant of the recent political issues through the Internet, many are unaware of the ways to directly communicate with politicians. Furthermore, as the Annals survey demonstrate, many respondents (44.6%) expressed doubts on the reliability of political information on the Internet. Such low level of trust on political issues and the failure of effective communication with the government lead to voter fatigue and political apathy of the young.
There are some politicians who use Social Network Services (SNS) such as Twitter or Facebook to communicate with citizens; however, some people think that most of these politicians simply pretend to interact with citizens. This is because they are often criticized for using SNS solely for superficial purposes, such as carrying out campaigns during election periods. SNS should be more actively utilized as a communicative platform that allows politicians to directly share political issues and their thoughts with the citizens. Young people yearn for a politician who truly understands young people’s interests and knows how to utilize digital communicative means to listen to their opinions.
Political apathy of young South Koreans also stems from the memorization-based education in South Korea. Education for underage South Koreans is highly centered on memorizations and exams, which is far different from participatory learning approaches that encourage students to engage in debates, discussions and activities. Even though South Korean students learn basic knowledge on politics and political theories, such as the constitution, political parties, and voting process, many of them fail to realize why learning such topics is part of their civic duty. Astoundingly, many young voters are still unaware of the ways to vote or the reason why their vote is crucial in promoting a democratic society. Among the respondents from the Annals survey, 16% were ambivalent whether they should vote because they “do not know much about politics” and “do not know how to vote.” With students undermining the importance of voting and political participation, the voter turnout of South Korean people in their 20s remains low. Therefore, South Korean education should focus more on teaching youth to become more responsible citizens that actively engage in societal matters by learning to express their opinions on socio-political issues.
Steps to build a participatory democracy
It should be kept in mind that the young generation is not a subject to be blamed for their low political interests. Politics is simply far-flung from young people’s daily routine. Thus, both the government and young’s efforts are essential to increase political participation from younger citizens. The first step is to create a relevant political sphere for the young generation to facilitate the communication between them and politicians. One way to increase political participation from the young is to effectively utilize SNS, which is the most popular communicative means among young people. Because anyone can freely and equally share their thoughts and opinions, SNS is the easiest and fastest method to popularize politics. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for instance, is known to be a diligent user of Twitter, in which he regularly updates his daily activities, hobbies, and current projects. In fact, he has been an active user of Twitter since before becoming a politician. Today, he is perceived as a friendly politician and garners advocacy from many young supporters. According to a 2016 survey conducted by Montreal Gazette on 8,053 Quebecers, Trudeau’s satisfaction rate was 70% among the youth. Some people say that his effective use of social media won him his office.
During his elections period in Canada, tweeting debates as well as video streaming were available on live for any Canadian citizens who could access these contents through mobile phones. According to Katie Harbath (Politics and government outreach director, Facebook), such effective utilization of the media was “something that allowed Trudeau and the Liberals to reach a lot more people than were just there in the room… It [is] an example that I use elsewhere around the world to show people how they could use live.” Effective use of SNS and media by Canadian politicians serves as a model for South Korean politicians. According to Lew Seok-jin (Prof., Dept. of Political Science & Int. Studies, Sogang Univ.), “SNS must be actively utilized; communicative channels must be diversified and strict surveillance or regulation of social media must be lowered. The government should not hesitate to use SNS to communicate with the citizens.” While many young Koreans face communication barriers with the government, SNS should provide the platform in which both groups can demolish those barriers.
Another way to familiarize the young with politics is through active support of youth organizations. According to Ha Jun-tae (Representative, Korea Youth Corps), “the only ones who can truly understand the problems that young people face are young people themselves. Thus, through more active participation from youth organizations in the political arena, more young people will be able to connect themselves with politics.” In fact, South Korea has a proportional representation system for the youth, in which a certain percentage of young representatives are allocated seats at the National Assembly. At first, the system was implemented with the purpose of electing a young representative who can speak on behalf of the young generation. However, as Yoon Hui-sook (Representative, Korea Youth Solidarity) states, the truth is that “even though young representatives can nominally take part in the National Assembly, there are still not many opportunities for young people in general to participate in the government sector.” Furthermore, the young proportional representation system faces criticism that it merely increases youth voter turnout while failing to voice out young people’s opinions. In fact, the eligible age to apply for young representative is up to around 40. In the 19th general elections in 2012, only 9 of the total 300 elected members of the National Assembly were under age 40. And merely 2% of them were in their 20s. Therefore, it is a great doubt whether these representatives can really represent the young. The system, overall, lacks its substance and more support is needed for increased representation of the young in their 20s and 30s. In the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), there are separate political organizations within the party that supports young socialist members of SPD. One of them is Jusos, which aims to speak out loudly about critical issues and dangerous trends in society. The organization consists of about 68,000 members, most of them below age 35, and as a young group, it strives for equal opportunities in society for the young generation. Similarly, South Korea should promote political organizations for the young and give more support to young representatives in the National Assembly as they are the crucial bridge to connecting young civilians with politics.
Most importantly, young people themselves must realize why it is important for them to participate politically. As the survey by Annals demonstrate, most of those who decided not to vote in the 20th general elections said that they themselves do not voluntarily search for political news as they are indifferent towards politics (graph 1-2). Their responses show that many young people fail to realize the crucial role of politics in their daily lives. But in fact, regardless of their age, all citizens are obligated to elect members of the government who will represent their stances, while the government issues out policies that directly affect their life. Because the citizens’ behavior, values, lives, and rights are the result of political policies and governance, their involvement is necessary in shaping society and politics. If young people are more concerned about political decisions, society will move towards a more participatory democracy. With more progressive, democratic citizens, society would successfully reflect the young generation’s interests.
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Society needs young people to care about socio-political affairs. Democracy only serves its role when different social groups are involved in political decision-making processes. The task to create a participatory democracy in South Korea lies both on the government and on the citizens. Though it is a long-term task, effective communication methods and increased awareness on the side-effects of political apathy by the young generation are necessary. For the sake of the present and the future of South Korea, more efforts must be dedicated to increase young’s political participation.