[Viewpoint] The divide between old and young“Dae Han Min Guk!” The famous World Cup chant of South Korea’s official name accompanied by a rapid clap four times echoed loudly throughout the country as our team scored their first win at the South Africa World Cup. The extraordinary force that somehow brings together everyone on this soil into an unity of aspiration and exhilaration washed away the fissures and scars left by the elections two weeks ago. Why can’t politics have the same power of bringing forth catharsis and unity among our people?
Many talk of the need for the government to connect with the young generation in the wake of the election that resulted in crushing defeat for the ruling conservative party. President Lee Myung-bak emphasized the need to reach out to the younger generation in his first address following the election outcome. The ruling party certainly will have to pay closer attention to the young voters in their 20s and 30s in view of their flat-out rejection. But does the party have a feasible plan?
The president appears to be pointing to his and the party’s unpopularity among the younger generation as one of the key reasons for their defeat in the midterm elections. But I have to wonder if they have any idea why they received the cold shoulder. Many cite the president’s lack of emotional connection with the public, the exploitation of the Cheonan crisis, flawed nominations and influence of the fast, vibrant social networking service Twitter in organizing mass support behind the opposition party’s surprising win. A war scare exaggerated by tensions between the two Koreas following the conclusion that North Korea was involved in the Cheonan sinking caused young voters to turn against the incumbent government. The analysis is plausible, but that cannot alone explain their motives. Yet we can certainly read the unique sentiment and thoughts of the young people in their views on the Cheonan disaster. We should follow the trajectory to discern exactly at what point in the development of the Cheonan crisis they turned against the government and ruling party. Many among the young still buy the theory that the Cheonan crime scene was manipulated by our side. They reconstruct and spread various conspiracy theories. The older generation can only lament how this could happen.
The disillusionment and distrust of the young had been bred long before the Cheonan sinking. They smelled the stink of past authoritarian governments in allegations that entertainers who had been friendly with the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration had been dropped from TV programs, and the prosecution against former Prime Minister Han Myung-sook. Whether true or not, the government can’t deny it gave the impression that it wielded influence when it came to the media, corporate management and the prosecution. The opposition also succeeded in their insistent negative campaign of painting the Lee Myung-bak government as a domineering bully. To the eyes of young, mobile, free minds living in the Internet age, the Lee administration represents a throwback to the outmoded style of the 1970s and1980s in its action and attitude. No wonder they are suspicious of whatever the government says regarding the Cheonan sinking. They brushed the incident aside as the old guard exploiting an old-fashioned scheme of exaggerating the North Korean threat to use it to gain votes. No matter how much we talked of a security crisis, they only sniffed at the circumstances as part of a political sham.
The government has long appeared distant from the young generation. It may have appeared to be condescending, scolding them for being gullible and reckless in their vigil amid the mad cow scare. Some criticize those close to President Lee as being self-righteous and elitist, forming a coterie that was suspicious of people outside their inner circle. The young abhor this kind of restrictive and out-of-date school most. Mutual recriminations will damage democratic values.
To win the hearts of the young people, the older group of officials must accommodate them in both their appearance and attitude. They must ask themselves if they have not resorted to overbearing authority and political exploitation to get work done in their favor. The Internet generation has surprisingly sophisticated tastes and views. They grew up under liberal teachers. They are not that easy to intimidate. They can discern false justice.
The mode favored by the young is a sophisticated democracy. Politics with dignity through dialogue, sincere persuasion via solid logic, tolerance and innovative ideas can excite the young generation as much as idol groups. If the government really wants to connect, it must shed its wardrobe of old thoughts to match the young style. But a grand makeover of the Grand National Party may not be that easy. When the president stressed the connection with the Internet generation, the younger members of GNP got excited about gaining the spotlight. But they got it all wrong. Their problem is their thought, not their age.
*The writer is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Heo Nam-chin