[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Voting and adulthood

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Voting and adulthood

On Monday, student leaders from 21 universities around the country held a news conference to propose a novel idea: lowering the voting age in Korea to 18. Current law sets the voting age at 20. The students argued for lowering the voting age to 19 for the coming general election and eventually to 18. They pointed out that men can be drafted into military service at age 19 and all citizens have a right to sit for civil service exams from the age of 18. If 18 and 19 are measures of adulthood, then why keep the voting age at 20?
The debate over the voting age begin during the Kim Dae-jung administration. In 2001, the government proposed to lower the voting age to 19 as part of a proposal to make 19 the legal age for all purposes. In 2002, a change in the “Youth Protection Law” lowered the age for drinking and smoking to 19, but the legal age to be considered an adult remains at 20. The age for getting a driver’s license is 18, and people who turn 17 must apply for a national ID card within six months of their birthday. Women can marry at 18 and men at 16 with parental consent.
Societies define legal adulthood in different ways, depending on the activity. In the United States, the transition to adulthood begins in most states at 16 and ends at 21, the legal age for buying alcoholic drinks. The 26th amendment to the Constitution lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971. In most states, people can get a driver’s license at 16, and get married at 16 with parental consent. In Japan, 20 is the legal age of adulthood, making it legal for people to vote, drink, and smoke. Youths can drive at 18; women can marry at 18 and men at 16 with parental consent.
Clearly, the definition of adulthood depends on the activity in question rather than a set age. The definition of adulthood has become more fractured as the range of activities has increased. The rise of violent crime among youth in Japan and the United States, for example, has forced society to take a second look at laws designed to protect minors from adult legal punishment. The question about the voting age, then, is: What sort of activity is voting?
In democracies, voting symbolizes membership in the national community. The students who called for lowering the voting age last Monday want a say in shaping the future of the nation. They believe that if society allows them to serve in the military, to work, and to pay taxes, then it should allow them a say in forming national policy. This makes sense and is no doubt why the government began considering the change in 2001.
This is the same argument that supporters of the 26th amendment to the U.S. Constitution used in the late 1960s. The issue of military service, however, was what fed the drive to lower the voting age to 18. At the time, the Vietnam War was exacting a heavy human and political toll on the United States and opposition to the war was growing. Opponents of the war argued that a nation cannot expect its citizens to sacrifice their lives if they cannot vote. This argument overpowered the counterargument that young people do not have enough life experience to make a wise decision in the voting booth.
Voting, of course, is also about politics, and politicians have historically tried to rig the system to their advantage. Some conservatives in the United States at the time feared that lowering the voting age would put them at a disadvantage because the voting booths would be swamped with young radicals. Results of elections since then, however, show the opposite. Since 1972, when 18-year-olds were allowed to vote in a presidential election, Republican candidates have won five of the eight elections, four of those five by large margins.
The sharp generational split on social change and national security in Korea now is reminiscent of the turbulent late 1960s in the United States. Conservatives may fear that lowering the voting age to 18 will swell the ranks of Roh supporters, but that is a passing concern. As long as Korea maintains a military draft, they face the same question that their American counterparts faced before: How can a nation ask its youth to make the ultimate sacrifice without giving them the right to vote?

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.

by Robert J. Fouser
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