Young voters hold power to decide South Korean presidential election

Campaigning by South Korea’s ruling and opposition parties is in full swing for next March’s presidential election. Young people dissatisfied with the status quo are strongly demanding a change in politics, a factor that will have a major impact on the outcome of the election.

Conservative Yoon Suk-youl, the former top prosecutor, leads recent polls on who the public prefers for the next president, followed by Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung, a member of the leftist ruling party.

During his tenure as prosecutor general, Yoon resigned after a fierce confrontation with the administration over the investigation into the justice minister, who was a close aide to President Moon Jae-in, and also over prosecution reforms. He announced his candidacy for the presidency in late June, and is highly likely to join the People Power Party, the largest conservative opposition party.

The Moon administration has been riddled with alleged irregularities and scandals, including one over real estate speculation in which public servants and others have allegedly been buying up land that was certain to rise in value based on insider information. There have also been a number of sexual harassment cases involving those related to the ruling party.

Yoon’s high level of popularity can be said to reflect the public’s anger at the government and the ruling party and their demand for reforms.

However, Yoon has no political experience, and his ability to deal with economic issues and foreign affairs is unknown. He must present his vision and policies in a substantial manner to aim for the presidency.

In South Korea, young voters from age 18 to their 20s and 30s have the power to influence politics. They have become a major force in street demonstrations and have a high voter turnout. It also was young people in this generation that drove former President Park Geun-hye toward impeachment and removal from office.

The ruling party candidates’ crushing defeats in the Seoul and Busan mayoral elections in April were largely attributable to the administration’s failure to fulfill its election pledges to solve unemployment and curb real estate prices, leading to disappointment among young people. For that reason, the competition for young voters will become even more intense for the coming presidential election.

The People Power Party elected a 36-year-old startup entrepreneur as its leader. He cannot become a presidential candidate because he does not meet the 40 and over age requirement. However, it is obvious that the opposition party aims to make an impression on young people about its transformation.

The conservative camp has been worrying about the aging of its supporters and the sluggish approval rating. Electing a young leader alone cannot be expected to lead to its revitalization. The question will be whether it can demonstrate the ability to take charge of the government by returning to its traditional policy of emphasizing relations with Japan and the United States and resolutely dealing with the threat of North Korea.

It is hoped that candidates for the presidential election will engage in constructive discussions aimed at rebuilding cooled Tokyo-Seoul relations.

There are many problems with Lee’s hard-line stance toward Japan. He questioned the inclusion of the Takeshima islands on a map of Japan on the website of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, saying that South Korea should boycott the Games.

Lee should refrain from making radical statements as a faddish gimmick to attract attention and for the sake of gaining popularity.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on July 7, 2021.