Why Millennial Voters Turned on Korea's Park

Ahn Cheol Soo celebrates his victory in the parliamentary election on April 13.

Ahn Cheol Soo celebrates his victory in the parliamentary election on April 13.

Photographer: Sipa via AP Photo
  • Double-digit jobless rate powered young voter election turnout
  • Millennials turned on Park and `old men who run the chaebol'

Spend any time on South Korean social media sites, and you’re bound to see the phrase “Hell Chosun.” For Korean millennials, that refers to the hellish future that lies ahead. Such youthful disillusionment goes a long way toward explaining the electoral drubbing voters gave President Park Geun Hye’s ruling party in last week’s parliamentary election.

Park’s Saenuri Party fell to second place in the National Assembly with 122 of 300 seats, behind the main opposition’s 123 seats, confounding some opinion polls that predicted she’d gain ground. The fledgling and centrist People’s Party, led by a businessman-turned-politician, Ahn Cheol Soo, attracted a big chunk of the youth vote and picked up 38 seats, denying Park her majority.

Park Geun Hye.
Park Geun Hye.
Photographer: Seong Joon Cho/Bloomberg

In “Hell Chosun,” which uses the ancient name for Korea, the children of the elite nab the best jobs while the rest are relegated to low-paying and precarious positions serving the chaebol, the predominantly family owned companies that dominate South Korea’s economy. That is, if they’re employed at all. South Korea’s youth unemployment rate hit a record 12.5 percent in February, before a slight improvement to 11.8 percent in March.

“Ahn Cheol Soo tapped into the whole Hell Chosun thing,” said Robert Kelly, a political science professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University. “These younger voters were energized by the opportunity to vote for someone other than the traditional left-wing party, which often looks too pro-North Korean. Ahn offered a place for young conservatives who don’t like Park and her party of old men who run the chaebol.

Youth Vote

Though the national election commission won’t publish the official turnout numbers until June, the highest participation rate was for those ages 19 to 29 in the two days of early voting when citizens who are unable to cast ballots on election day are allowed to vote.

It’s probably too early to say if the emergence of the People’s Party, which only in February broke away from the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea to offer a more centrist alternative, will result in a genuine multi-party legislature in South Korea. Ahn has offered few policy details, and this may have helped his performance.

“He kept his talk about reform vague enough so that it could be anything anyone wanted,” Kelly said. “It was a protest vote. I am still not sold on this idea that this was 1994 American-style revolution in the legislature and we now have a multi-party system in Korea.”

One clear upshot of the election will be to stymie any chance Park had to fast-track passage of laws some consider vital if South Korea is to achieve the structural reforms its economy needs to cope with competition from more sophisticated Chinese manufacturers, shift its own industry toward services and cope with an aging population.

Uncertain Future

Korea’s economy is expected to grow 2.8 percent this year, down from a previous forecast of 3 percent, according to the Bank of Korea. In March, exports showed a decline for a 15th consecutive month, dropping 8.2 percent from a year earlier and falling 12.2 percent to China -- South Korea’s largest trading partner. The Korea Development Institute in December 2014 calculated that low productivity growth and an aging population could halve South Korea’s potential growth rate to 1.4 percent in the 2030s.

“A slowdown would be credit-negative if GDP growth would structurally reach lower levels than expected, in particular if the slowdown would reflect medium to longer-term challenges to Korea’s economic growth model,” said Thomas Rookmaaker, a sovereign analyst at Fitch Ratings in Hong Kong. “There are some long-term issues in Korea concerning growth, including population aging and low productivity.”

Park Mystique

Park is the daughter of military dictator Park Chung Hee, whose policies are credited with spawning the country’s post-war economic miracle and who was murdered by his intelligence chief in 1979. (His wife died in a failed assassination attempt on his life in 1974.) The younger Park was elected to the National Assembly in 1998 and rallied conservatives behind her.

In her inauguration speech, Park promised “economic democratization” -- or the spreading of wealth -- along with reform of the education system, an economic revival and a nation “where happiness prevails.” She described a South Korea where innovative technology startups would thrive, and where individuals would be able to achieve success based on their merits rather than their family connections.

“She knew all the lines which have been known for the past 10 years or more about the big structural changes Korea has to make if it is going to stop drifting toward slower growth,” Andrew Gilholm, director of analysis for North Asia at Control Risks Group, said in Seoul. “She hit all the right notes, but she didn’t have a vision. It was all versions of things that had been tried and failed before.”

Ahn’s party now has enough seats in parliament to affect passage of legislation. He urged her to start cooperating and learn to compromise. “President Park Geun Hye needs to fundamentally change governing direction toward dialogue and cooperation, from dogmatism, single-mindedness,” Ahn said Monday.

Park for a while has been faced with an opposition intent on blocking legislation. In March, lawmakers who wanted to stop Park’s anti-terrorism bill held up action for almost nine days in a series of rambling speeches that included passages of George Orwell’s “1984.” Since 2012, fewer than a third of the bills introduced in parliament have passed, according to National Assembly data.

Ferry Disaster

A major blow to Park’s popularity came in April 2014, when an overloaded ferry capsized killing more than 300, including 250 high school students. It was the latest in a series of lethal accidents that prompted accusations in the media that the government allowed companies to turn a blind eye to safety in the name of economic development. Though her government wasn’t directly responsible, Park’s ratings plummeted.

She managed a recovery on the back of her tough stance on provocations from North Korea. In August, Park defused a military standoff with North Korea and in January she called for a global response after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test.

Any ground won was short-lived, though, as Park struggled to implement economic changes including an overhaul of the labor market, which brought workers onto the streets to protest. She couldn’t win approval of a package of bills to cut back restrictions on hiring contract workers, and is unlikely to succeed in doing so in the last two years of her term.

“Traditionally, Korea has had very labor-friendly legislation, so any leader in Korea that wants to get away with labor-market reform has got to have a bigger package and more compelling story that people buy into,” Gilholm said. “Until people feel there is a more equal playing field, they are much less willing to tolerate any relaxing of the protections on labor law, and I don’t think she ever conveyed that kind of vision of a wider new deal.”

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