A political tsunami

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A political tsunami

Yeom Jae-ho
The author is an emeritus professor of Korea University and former president of Korea University.


A tsunami devastates the land upon hitting the beach. But the gargantuan tidal wave always shows some signs before it hits the land — seismic shifts under the seabed.

When a tsunami occurred in Fukushima, Japan 10 years ago, it ruined many villages along the coast. More damage resulted from radioactive leaks at the Fukushima nuclear plants. The slow reaction of Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Japanese government to the colossal disaster still has people suffering from leaks of radioactive material from nuclear reactors. Taking effective post-tsunami measures is also as important as detecting a tsunami in advance.

The landslide victory of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) in the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan testifies to a cataclysmic revolt by voters particularly given the ruling Democratic Party (DP)’s sweeping triumph in the parliamentary elections last year. In Seoul, more than 70 percent of male voters in their 20s supported Oh Se-hoon, the PPP candidate, pouring cold water on the DP’s expectation that they would not voter for a conservative party given their progressive tendency. The rebellion of the young could be a political tsunami.

Were there no portents of a political tsunami from voters in their 20s and 30s? You cannot brush off their antipathy towards the government and the DP as a temporary phenomenon. Rather, it’s a reflection of their repeated disappointments at the ruling front as it failed to meet their hope for a future-oriented progressive party as a result of their massive candlelight movement on Gwanghwamun Square. Their dismay also stems from the government’s betrayal of the values of fairness and justice it championed. The young do not define the ruling camp as a progressive group. The democracy fighters — a core group in the government and the DP — may think they are still young, but unfortunately they are regarded as one of the outdated — and conservative — interest groups by the young generation.

Signs of an upcoming political tsunami were sensed many times before. After the government decided to form a joint South-North Korean ice hockey team for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics for political purposes, the young voters were enraged over unfairness as the decision meant the elimination of some South Korean athletes from the roster despite their years of hard training to make room for North Korean players.

President Moon’s promise — and implementation — of a plan to convert all contract workers at Incheon International Airport to full-time employees also outraged the generation because of the dramatic change of their employment status by just a few words from the president.

The double standards the Blue House staffers and DP lawmakers showed on tricky real estate issues were nonsensical enough to anger the young, not to mention the Cho Kuk scandal. President Moon’s pledge to address soaring real estate prices, create jobs, make Korea a global model in battling Covid-19 through what he calls “K-quarantine,” and take the driver’s seat in resolving inter-Korean issues, including denuclearization, did not work.

The World Health Organization (WHO) anticipated that Korea will be the country with the highest life expectancy — 90.82 years for women and 84.07 years for men — globally by 2030. But long life presents anxiety and a burden to the young, not hope and dream. Employed workers expect to retire at 49.7 on average with only 19 percent of them thinking they can work until their retirement age at 60. While major OECD member countries spend 20.0 percent of their budget on welfare services, Korea’s share stands at a meager 12.2 percent, 35th among 38 OECD member nations. Though a critical dearth of social security makes the young more unstable after retirement, skyrocketing real estate prices and taxes are pushing them into panic.

What have the government and DP been doing over the past four years?

They were only engrossed with achieving prosecution reforms, eradicating “deep-rooted evils” in our society, and rooting out the legacy of Japan’s colonial rule. Their rush to establish the fourth industrial revolution committee, the job creation committee, and draw up the Korean New Deal failed to get the attention of the public. Their policy aimed at protecting the few underprivileged only triggered unwanted side effects.

A dramatic increase in the minimum wage strongly pushed by the government helped reduce part-time jobs for the young. Its policy to guarantee college instructors of their tenure led to a reduction of their numbers.

The government tried to convert part-time researchers at state-run research institutes only forced them to cut their numbers and caused many graduate schools to take fewer students than before. That’s not all. Increased unemployment benefits for the young made it more difficult for SMEs to hire them.

And yet, the DP refuses to change course by naively believing in the power of its loyalists. The PPP will welcome it as it benefits them. If the government and DP fail to deal with aftershocks of a political tsunami, their pain will last for more than a decade. I hope the DP and government engage in politics with a sense of fear.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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