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Age: Korea's Latest Faultline in Politics
Impeachment, controversy and Internet are poised to incite a generational confrontation at the polls
Todd Thacker (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-04-06 14:35 (KST)   
With 299 seats up for grabs in next Thursday's 17th National Assembly Election, the nation is entering untrodden territory as strict new campaign procedures, a possible voter backlash over the impeachment of President Roh Moo Hyun and a massive voting block of young people that is being mobilized via the Internet come together in a volatile election climate.

The balance of Korean political power, which traditionally lay with older voters who favored a conservative government, is giving way to a new block of youth power. Politicians are turning to cyber campaigning aimed at harnessing this politically expedient force.

Chung, the chairman of Uri-party offers an apology to elders for his offending remark.
© Yonhap
Media consumption between the generations has also reached polar opposites. The older voters are forming their opinions by reading columns and editorials of politically influential conservative newspapers, while younger people often do not read newspapers at all, opting instead to get their election news and debate from Internet news sources like OhmyNews and bulletin boards at political and news Web sites.

All this may be the straw that breaks the conservative camel's back in the National Assembly. Internet debate and mobile phone communications are speeding up the spread of election information and debate, mobilizing the hi-tech users, mostly the young, to become backers of a new majority party.

One source of this youth solidarity can be traced to Korea's 2002 World Cup bid. The national team's supporter club dubbed the "Red Devils" was a focus for Korean youth (and later the entire country) to rally around their squad and play a part in Korea's final four showing. As a result, Korean young people got a taste of their collective power, which they have not soon forgotten.

Though apathetic in past elections, they have spent the last few months rallying in online Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards, debating the issues and encouraging other twenty and thirty-somethings (known as the "2030 generation") to turn out for the election.

This online solidarity is being recognized by all the political parties. The traditional conservative and liberal ratios of majority and minority potential voting blocks are being reversed, as the percentage of "2030s" outnumbers the "4050s" by 47 percent to 30 percent. Even if the traditionally conservative block of voters aged 40 or above came out to vote en-masse for one party, they would only have a 53 percent to 47 percent advantage over their younger counterparts.

As a result, all three parties are operating comprehensive Web sites and even offer their own downloadable mobile phone ringtones and slogans. These can be sent to the phones of friends and family. Meanwhile, candidates are left wooing older voters with less dynamic electioneering tools like traditional rallies and pamphlet distribution.

This is not the first time the Internet has played such a crucial role in rallying a key block of young voters. In the 2002 Presidential election, the National Election Commission (NEC) ruled that mobile phones and the Internet were a legal means of electioneering. Though political spam email was prohibited, party email lists, Internet chatting and online political bulletin boards were allowed. Net savvy young people were more attracted to this kind of campaign message than stuffy rallies or debates.

The voting public is also rallying around an issue that has shocked the nation: President Roh's impeachment. Polls show that 75 percent of Koreans opposed Roh's impeachment -- a bill that was introduced and passed by the majority conservative Grand National Party (GNP).

Will they turn out at the polling station? - Angry young voters in the candle festival.
© Kwon W.S.
This GNP measure, which was widely seen by the public as a blatant pre-election tactic, has blown up in its face. So unnerved is the party that it has made the symbolic move of its headquarters to an outdoor tent along the Han River in a show of penitence, but this gesture may prove to be too little too late.

The impeachment storm emerged some months back when President Roh publicly said he hoped members of the Uri Party would succeed in the coming election. The GNP jumped on this, accused him of violating a section of election law prohibiting public servants from overtly supporting a political party.

On March 11, Roh gave a closely watched press conference at which he was expected to apologize for his remarks. Many thought that would be the end to calls for his impeachment, but Roh did not apologize and the impeachment bill went ahead and was passed.

Much controversy surrounds the election law itself. The language of the section cited by the pro-impeachment faction is ambiguous and does not explicitly state the President is considered a public servant in the same way a public teacher or civil servant is. Currently the union leaders of both are being investigated and detained by police under this section of the election law.

The Constitutional Court is now considering the legality of the impeachment measure, and most legal experts think Roh will be cleared of wrongdoing and be back in Cheong Wa Dae soon. The pro-Roh Uri Party also appear poised to ride the wave of public outrage from the President's impeachment to win a majority of the seats on April 15.

The NEC has imposed bans on joint speeches by candidates and solidarity speeches by party members. If a candidate makes a public appearance, he or she may only do so if accompanied by less than five campaign workers. Consequently this has become a media election and cyber campaign, with slick party Web sites promoting online debates - something you can't get by buying a newspaper. Politicians are spending more time wooing younger voters online, while meeting older voters in person. Even the NEC admits it is devoting more time and money to online promotion of the election.

As of March 27, 2004, the percentage of registered voters per age group breaks down as: voters in their 20s number 7.87 million (22.1 percent), those in their 30s total 8.88 million (24.9 percent), 40s 8.13 million (22.8 percent), 50s number 4.71 million (13.2 percent) and people in their 60s or over number 6 million (16.9 percent), for a total of 35,607,296 potential voters out of a population of 48,426,764. Of these the gender breakdown is 17,497,407 male voters and 18,109,889 female voters.

When looking at the all-important generation voting block, the numbers break down along the following lines: Those in their 20s, 30s and 40s total 24,890,211 (70 percent of all voters). The "2030" vote comprises 47 percent of the total at 16,758,688, while the older vote of the 40s, 50s and 60s number 18,848,144 (or 53 percent). The "5060" vote number 10,716,621 (30 percent).

Koreans between 20 to 30 combined to form a near half of total voters. Source: NEC
© OhmyNews
Not only is the majority voting public getting younger, over half the registered candidates in the upcoming election are under the age of 40 and nine are in their 20s. In the past, the average age of a legislator was closer to 50. By party, DLP members' the average age was just 41, followed by the Uri Party at 49, the MDP at 51 and 52 for the GNP.

Another stimulus to an increased voter turnout appears to be an incident involving Uri Party leader Chung Dong Young. On April 1, he put his foot in his mouth when he said, or was interpreted as saying, that older voters in their 60s and 70s would be better off staying home on election day. Chung's remarks were taken to mean conservative old-timers should just stay out of the election and the liberal youth, who support President Roh and the Uri Party, should turn out en-masse.

He quickly backpedaled, spending much of last week apologizing to elderly voters around the country. One group, Korean Association for the Elderly, called for his resignation and though experts think he will survive the political storm incited by his comments, an interesting side effect has been the mobilization of even more young and old voters by making the issue of the "2030s'" election power more widely known.

Netizens nationwide have been praising a recent election statement by philosopher and popular television personality Kim Yong Ok, who made an appeal to younger voters on MBC TV's lecture series "Who are we Koreans?"

"Humanity has fought with blood and sweat for 2,500 years for the right to wrest a vote from the despot. Young people should make use of this precious right."

If his lecture hit the hearts of young voters, he will find out when the ballot boxes are opened on April 15 .
©2004 OhmyNews
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