The young made their voices heard in the June local electionsWith youth unemployment at an all-time high and hopes for the future diminishing day by day, many of Korea’s young people no longer trust the political establishment. A few have jumped into the political scene themselves to create the change they want to see.
The JoongAng Ilbo interviewed five young people who have challenged the establishment in the June 13 local elections.
One of them works ten hours a day, but makes just 70,000 won ($62.61) for it. One is an engineering student, and another is looking for a job. One refuses to get married, while one is set to be married soon. None of them were elected this time, but their experience has given them a valuable insight into the state of politics in Korea today.
The candidates are: U In-cheol, 33, of the youth-centered Our Future party, who ran for mayor of Seoul; Lee Ju-yeong, 28, the Green Party’s candidate for Seoul’s Gangnam District Office Chief; Kim Gwang-won, 25, the leftist Labor Party’s candidate for Suwon’s seat on the Gyeonggi Provincial Council; Cho Joon-gyu, 28, a Bareunmirae Party candidate for the Gangnam F seat on the Seoul City Council, and Kwak Seung-hee, 31, an independent candidate who ran for a seat on the Geumcheon District Council in Seoul.
Q. What describes you best as a person?
U In-cheol: I am currently facing all the problems that young people today struggle with, including housing, job and marriage issues. I am currently serving as head of the Our Future Party to solve such issues.
Lee Ju-yeong: I’ve worked as a graphic designer. Within the Green Party, there is a general consensus that we should refrain from putting up our academic backgrounds on campaign posters. But because I have little work experience, I had no choice but to advertise my background as a political science graduate at Ewha Woman’s University. I regret this decision, since I believe it reinforces our society’s obsession with academic prestige.
Cho Joon-gyu: I learned about politics from the bottom up. I was one of the first participants in the Bareun Party’s Political Camp for Youths. My parents almost kicked me out of the house after I told them I was running in the recent elections.
Kwak Seung-hee: I believe the freedom to change one’s job is not a personal issue, but a societal one. In order to reduce our unemployment rate, we must address the problems in our corporate culture and how changing jobs is perceived. A year and two months ago I created a booklet called “Resignation Monthly,” which discusses how job changes are seen in our society.
Kim Gwang-won: I’ve had many part-time jobs in the service sector, so I know how to greet people and act politely. It is important for a politician to listen well and be able to communicate with his or her constituents.
What prompted you to run in the June 13 local elections?
U: The current mayor of Rome is a 37-year-old woman, and the Austrian chancellor is only 31 years old. In Korea, politicians only give the youth lip service. But the problems of the young are at the core of our society’s most fundamental issues. Only by confronting these issues through politics can we secure progress for the future. The younger generation must step up to build a better society.
Lee: I decided to run with the goal of adding diversity to the elections. Most of the candidates in this year’s local elections were men in their 50s and 60s. A certain gender and age group occupies over half of all decision-making positions in our country. Politics must reflect a variety of genders, ages and identities. In the past, I thought only professional politicians could serve in politics, but now I know that politics begins in our daily lives.
Cho: When we tried to implement a civil participatory budget system — in which ordinary citizens add their input to the allocation of the city’s budget — in Seoul, civil servants objected to it and ultimately put an end to our efforts. I wanted to become a city lawmaker in order to check the power of these civil servants and build a proper opposition party.
Kwak: I decided to run in order to help ordinary people in my neighborhood live to their full potential. In the past, I did not realize one could simply decide to be a professional politician. Once I found out that anyone who has lived in his or her district for over 60 days and has 2 million won is eligible to run for a seat in the district legislature, I decided to jump into the race.
Kim: In 2012, when we had both a parliamentary and presidential election, I came to realize just how important political parties and elections are. I witnessed how every social issue ultimately came down to election results.
In the film “Burning,” a character makes a distinction between the desires of “little hunger” — meaning physical cravings — and “great hunger,” which is a search for meaning. What kind of hunger do you feel?
Kim: I’ve been working at a part-time job for over five years now. Only yesterday, I had a temporary job that lasted only a day. I’ve met so many young people who have difficulty getting by day to day and live in a world mired by competition and insecurity. I want to build a society in which people can relax, have their labor rights guaranteed and in which incomes go up and public rights are valued.
Kwak: In my mind, I have no cravings. (laughs) The reason I decided to run was based on an impulse I had after quitting my job last April. I just felt I had to do what I wanted to do at the moment. I am running to accomplish tasks in my neighborhood that are realistically viable rather than transform the world.
U: In sociology, there is a difference between micro-freedoms and macro-freedoms. Fulfilling one’s basic desires such as hunger, food or clothing are classified as micro-freedoms. Macro-freedoms are higher level fulfillments enjoyed by youths who have money or inherited wealth but cannot be enjoyed by those who don’t. We have to build a society in which a majority of youths are able to design their futures and can realize them.
Lee: In reality, there is no such thing as superficial hunger. In Gangnam District [southern Seoul], such things as housing redevelopment, real estate and house prices remain key issues. But I can’t help but think whether these issues can really define our lives. Aren’t we thinking with an overly possessive mindset? The time has come for us to think about our lives in an existential perspective.
What was the most difficult aspect during these elections for you?
Lee: I was only able to receive 4,431 votes (1.7 percent). Our campaign had no full-time volunteers but we received help from ordinary citizens such as office workers, lawyers, consultants and child caretakers. A fundamental mistrust of politics among constituents was another difficult aspect.
U: I received 11,599 votes (0.2 percent). The most difficult aspect was the election laws. If we make an analogy to the Olympics, it’s as if we are forcing newbie athletes who have never won a medal before to begin the race 100 meters [328 feet] behind the others. Election costs and candidates’ debates are highly restricted and overwhelmingly favor the establishment.
Cho: I got only 6,097 votes (14.9 percent). I remember one old lady telling me, “It may be difficult for you to be elected this time, but since you are young, don’t give up and continue trying.”
Kim: I received 3,053 votes (6.5 percent). It was my first election in a district in which I had no political basis. I think I did well, considering I received 4 percent more than I expected. Many young people gave us their support.
Kwak: I received 2,246 votes (8.3 percent). I regret not having enough funds to make better campaign posters.
How do you view the political establishment, as young political aspirants?
U: A few political elites in Yeouido [western Seoul]— where the National Assembly is located — have traded power amongst themselves for decades. The establishment has failed to promote citizens’ participation in politics and breed a fresh generation of politicians. A younger generation must now step up to the forefront to defeat this inertia.
Kim: For a long time, two large parties have dominated politics. The people say politicians are all alike. It is now time to fundamentally change politics.
Cho: We must purge political complacency in the status quo. Political novices must also have the wisdom to ally themselves with tenured politicians who genuinely desire change.
Lee: The main problem is a very narrow range of representation in politics. If one looks at our field of candidates in the elections, one would think that only men in their 50s and 60s live in Korea.
Kwak: The establishment is made up of those who have resisted political evolution and at the same time represent the present that endangers our future.
How do you view the results of this election?
U: I believe the candlelight protests that ultimately took down the previous administration still define our society’s zeitgeist and have yielded these electoral results. The opposition seems to have misread public opinion and what the people of this era want.
Kwak: It isn’t right to say who won or lost simply based on the results of the gubernatorial elections. On the district legislature level, the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) — the main opposition party — also yielded many winners.
Kim: The ruling party is also part of the political establishment. There are many among them who don’t understand the people. The two large parties always cooperate when it comes down to defending their own interests. The conservatives are in collapse, but the current ruling party is also shifting to the right. We need a new brand of progressive politics.
Lee: We at the Green Party stress diversity above all other values. In this aspect, the results of this election were frightening, since one party virtually dominated the results. How can we expect to have fair representation of all voices in such a situation? I fear that diversity will not be well reflected in our politics.
Cho: The reason why the conservatives lost was because the Bareunmirae Party failed to properly demonstrate that it is the correct alternative to the LKP in representing conservative ideals.
How do establishment politics serve as an obstacle for you and what are the limitations you face with current election laws?
U: The most powerful weapon of the establishment is the current electoral system. They have so far been able to defeat significant changes through this system. In the United States, candidates are allowed to go door-to-door to talk to constituents, but Korean laws do not allow this. The laws restrict the people’s rights. The current electoral system does not guarantee equal opportunity, but rather acts as a means to consolidate the establishment’s advantage.
Lee: Election deposits are higher in Korea than anywhere else in the world. In foreign countries, there are either no deposits, or if there are, only range up to around 1 million won. Major parties here spend money like water and receive it all back through government subsidies. The primary agents of politics are parties, but the fact that party activity is prohibited during the official campaigning season does not match up with our political reality.
Kwak: The Seoul city legislature blocked redistricting to allow for four-person districts instead of two. I am one of the victims of this obstructionism.
Cho: Current election laws restrict all forms of campaigning save for a few limited exceptions listed in the law. The system should be changed to allow for all forms of campaigning, while listing only prohibited actions.
Kim: There are far too many limitations placed on political novices during the preliminary campaign season. All we are allowed do is pass out business cards, put up posters, send out official election notices to the public and hold small rallies where only the candidate is allowed to speak.
How have you dealt with campaign finance issues?
Cho: I borrowed most of the money needed from one youth party member who has been with me since we were in the Bareun Party. He ran in another district in this election and I was lucky to have him with me.
Kwak: I participated in a public contribution campaign for youth politicians. I received funding at an interest rate of 2 percent, and I have until October 1 to pay it back. In total, I was able to accumulate around 11 million won, but most of it is now debt, since I was unable to receive an official rebate through public funds.
Lee: The Green Party organized a special donation campaign to receive funding for deposits and campaign expenses. Since I was running to be district chief, I was able to open up an official campaign donation fund.
U: It costs around 300 million won to send out election information leaflets to the around 4.6 million households in Seoul. Because of financial burdens, we had to resort to creating leaflets only the size of one’s hand. They cost 2 won per page.
Kim: I have no money of my own and my party lacked funding, so we had to resort to special donations. I also had no car, so I had to take the bus to the campaign office every day.
How do you see the future of Korean society?
Kwak: Kim Jong-un won’t take responsibility for cleaning up our local neighborhoods. Trump won’t resolve the local parking issue. More and more people will take up challenges to create the kind of lives they want to live. As these small efforts accumulate, politics will slowly become easier.
Kim: If we continue to participate in politics, pursue solidarity and challenge ourselves, we will be able to change our neighborhoods and society at large.
Cho: The easiest way to resolve our daily problems is through politics. If we continue to raise issues by participating in political parties, there will be greater freedom for us to resolve our current issues.
U: Korean society is full of socioeconomic inequality and there is still a looming threat of war. It is up to the youth to find solutions to such problems. This is why I decided to jump into politics.
Lee: We cannot survive without old things, since they contain our past, pain and memories. But we also cannot live without faith in the new. The new represents energy, optimism and hopes for reconciliation. Through these beliefs, I hope to change our neighborhood.
BY chang se-jeong [email@example.com]