[Viewpoint] Youth give us reason for optimism

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[Viewpoint] Youth give us reason for optimism

The two most significant political events are happening at opposite ends of the Republic of Korea. One is the anti-base demonstrations in Jeju carried on by the usual activists. The other is the unanticipated emergence of an independent political force in Seoul’s mayoral election, offering hope to a new generation of Koreans.

The first event comprises of anti-military demonstrations on Jeju, conducted by primarily political activists in their 40s and older. While there are also young students joining the demonstrations, many are of the so-called “386 Generation.” Valiantly and futilely, they are fighting the good fight that cannot be won. They are fighting against legacies of the same establishment that they once did in the 1980s. For that, we owe them much in making Korea a genuine democracy.

Ironically, these aging activists view themselves as being progressive and even, in some cases, revolutionary, but all they are actually doing is fighting their old enemies. Their enemies are very real - just as cynical and hypocritical today as three decades ago. But the graying activists have settled into viewing the world with the same perspectives that once quickened their pulses when they faced genuine fascism in the 1980s. Unfortunately, as each year passes, the objectives become less important. The need to maintain the struggle, as viewed through 30-year-old lenses, becomes critical to their social definitions. The greatest tragedy is these activist groups have grown inward, without understanding how to effectively connect with and politically galvanize the majority of society whose interests they try to protect. They fail to recognize how their rhetoric has become almost a quaint relic.

In contrast, consider the groundswell by Korea’s younger generations. They have become alienated with politics offered by the left and the right, which together looks like some kind of Kabuki drama that expends a great deal of resources while delivering little improvement for the masses. The very labels of “leftist” and “rightist,” “conservative” and “progressive” have become cheapened in the view of many young Koreans. The old regional divisions, such as Cholla versus Gyeongsang, have lost their edge while younger Koreans hold greater distinction as to what generation does oneself and others belong.

Koreans in their 20s and early 30s have lost respect for traditional political labels. Given today’s modest and limited career choices, they are forced to try to understand political and economic realities, devoid of definitions established by their seniors.

Which brings us to the second, significant political event, the unexpected vacancy of the Seoul mayor’s seat. To many established conservative and progressive politicians’ dismay, an unlikely but charismatic candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, was pushed forward by adoring followers.

This software entrepreneur has staged live talks, referred to as “Youth Concerts,” with Park Kyung-chul, a surgeon and financial advisor. They have been regularly staged in concert halls and are routinely sold out in minutes. Videos of these discussions are hugely popular on YouTube.

Ahn and Park are immensely popular, since they offer insightful and truly refreshing perspectives of Korea’s society, politics and economics in ways that evade common categorization and labeling. Both men are from the academic elite and are highly respected leaders in their professions. At the same time, they offer sincere compassion and a reason for hope for young Koreans who lack powerful family connections and who cannot get decent jobs, even if they graduated from top universities.

As often is the case in democracies, the best and the brightest avoid the corrupting world of politics. But sometimes when conditions are dire, one of these individuals are thrust forward in the desperate hope that someone, who is not tied to the establishment or the professional anti-establishment, may lead the community.

It is too early to say if the grassroots nomination of Ahn Cheol-soo marks a paradigm shift in politics. But it is fair to say this kind of fresh thinking is much more revolutionary than the political dogma and organizations dominated by older Koreans on both the established left and right. As Oscar Wilde once put it, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

Every generation is entitled to define its own revolution in its own terms. I’m pleased to see the young generation’s attempt to redefine an out-of-date political paradigm and put forth brilliant, nonprofessional politicians who have already shown their capabilities in other sectors of society. This is truer to what the Age of Enlightenment thinkers had in mind when developing democratic republican forms of governance.

As it has turned out, political neophyte Ahn Cheol-soo chose not to enter the sordid world of politics, and thereby, for now, keeping true to his principles. Mr. Ahn endorsed “Mr. 386” himself, Park Won-soon, former secretary general of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, without pledging to campaign for him.

Humorist John Oliver noted that “democracy is like a tambourine - and not everyone can be trusted with it.” Unfortunately, today the wrong people seem to be making a great amount of noise out of sync with the peoples’ needs. Perhaps someday we may see Ahn and others pick up democracy’s tambourine and beat it to the heart beats of the common Korean.

*The writer is president of Soft Landing Consulting in Seoul.

By Tom Coyner
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