Lee Myung-bak, the 17th President of Korea pushed ahead with a number of reckless schemes during his term in power, despite public opposition. Projects such as the four river refurbishment scheme, in particular, caused widespread anger. People in their twenties were especially outraged by the disregarding attitudes of the government towards public opinion. Young people condemned some of the absurd projects promoted by the government and looked for a way to raise their voices against them.
Social Network Service(SNS) came as a breakthrough for such a movement. The young generation spread their own opinions through SNS and shared each others’ perspectives regarding political circumstances. The election for the Seoul mayor in 2011 provided an excellent opportunity for people in their twenties to express their views on politics. The youth were already disappointed by unpopular decisions made by the government and the ruling party. Korea’s youth wanted a new figure who was willing to listen to their voices and meet their demands. Accordingly, they were inclined to vote for Park Won-soon who had decided to run as an election independent of any party, rather than Na Kyung-won who was a candidate from the unpopular ruling party.
During the election for Seoul mayor in 2011, young people actively participated in delivering various political views to others through SNS, particularly through Twitter. In fact, tweets, messages posted on Twitter, during the election period were 1.5 times more than usual. According to Gruter, a company that analyzes social network data, tweets that mentioned Park numbered 13,913 on the day of voting itself, and tweets that numbered Na stood at 12,816. The result showed that Park accounted for 52.1 percent of the total tweets, whereas Na accounted for 47.9 percent, which reflected in the actual results of the vote count; 53.4 percent for Park and 46.2 percent for Na.
People in their twenties finally found an effective way to show interest and participate in politics through SNS. However, the question arose: Where is the political participation of the 20’s going?
The History of the 20’s Political Movement
The Republic of Korea(ROK) government was established on August 15, 1948 with Lee Seung-man elected as the first president. The ROK government claimed to be an advocate of democracy but, in fact, the value had to go through a lot of difficulties before finally being attained by its citizens. Since the establishment of the ROK government, a number of dictators have seriously abused their power. People who spent their twenties under these ruthless dictatorships could not overlook the unfairness and the injustice of the regimes. “What developed was a widespread social consensus of the need for democratization among students, so they took initiatives and protested to defend the value of democracy,” said Ryoo Woong-jae, a professor in the Division of Journalism and Mass Communication at Hanyang University(HYU).
The ROK went through tough periods under the regimes of President Lee Seung-man and President Park Jeong-hui, both of who disregarded the value of democracy by severely violating human rights. Chun Doo-hwan, who appeared on the political stage on May 17, 1980 by way of a military coup, was also no different from his predecessors. After Chun Doo-hwan came into power through this military coup he proclaimed martial law and launched a crackdown on pro-democracy movements by arresting student leaders and declaring closure of schools. This led to an extensive public democratization movement demanding for the abolition of martial law and the resignation of Chun Doo-hwan. The movement was especially fierce in the city of Gwangju, where almost 2,000 university students participated in protests. Students faced ruthless oppression from the military which culminated in a battle between students and soldiers. The young protesters were no match for the all-out attack from the military and finally surrendered to the government. “The demonstration of Gwangju students was repressed in the end but this movement crucially contributed to the formation of more organized student protests later on,” said Hong Yong-pyo, a professor in the Division of Political Science and Diplomacy at HYU.
In 1987, during the latter years of his regime, President Chun made attempts to prolong his position by opting for an indirect election system. Student protest groups opposed to this election system, the government’s fierce oppression and overall corruption spread nationwide. Professor Kim Jae-yong said, “Despite being from different social classes, both students and laborers united to fight against the autocratic authorities.” Kim Kyung-min, a professor in the Division of Political Science and Diplomacy at HYU said, “As students were out of school taking part in demonstrations, classes could not be properly taught.” Finally, President Chun gave in and relinquished his position as president on June 1987.
The goals of democracy in the 1980’s were finally attained and many of these achievements must be attributed to those university students in their twenties who actively stood against the dictatorships and dedicated themselves to the democratization movement.
However, university students these days do not pay much attention to political circumstances or voluntarily participate in political activities as much as those before them had done. The primary reason is that university students today face fierce competition as they seek to acquire a myriad of certificates while also taking part in competition projects to boost their resumes. Accordingly, people in their twenties do not have as much spare time to learn about current political issues. Professor Kim Jae-yong said, “Of course the general lack of concern toward politics from today’s youth cannot be ruled out but another main reason of this generations’ growing indifference toward politics is the abnormal structure of Korean society. Ever since the International Monetary Fund(IMF) financial crisis struck Korea in 1997, neoliberalism became more common in society. The value of competing and winning has pervaded the overall atmosphere since then and students devote themselves to building up their resumes and preparing for their future jobs.”
Reignited Interest in Politics by the Youth
With the advent of the Internet, the era of the digital age has come about. The Social Network Service, namely SNS, which provides services for the formation of personal networking between users has become highly accessible to everybody in this day in age. SNS includes programs such as Facebook, Twitter, and Kakao Talk, a messenger service for smart phone users. These services attract a large scale of people in Korea and worldwide, encouraging them to join their programs and communicate with others. In fact, the number of people who use SNS throughout the world has increased exponentially. According to Statistics Korea, a central statistics agency under the government, 5.44 million and 5.36 million accounts were opened on Twitter and Facebook respectively since their inception up until December 2011. The number of Twitter users has increased as much as 8.6 times in just a year and a half from June of 2010. The percentage of Facebook users also increased as much as 33.7 percent since September of 2010.
As the number of SNS users increases dramatically, the influence that SNS exercises on people has become enormous, too. According to a survey conducted by the Korea Communications Commission, 42.9 percent of SNS users replied that they regarded SNS as a credible medium for communication whereas only 12.1 percent replied that SNS was not credible. Moreover, 90 percent of people in their twenties replied that they used SNS, the largest number among all the age ranges. These statistics imply how SNS permeate into everyday life of citizens especially the youth.
Professor Sohn Dong-young in the Division of Journalism and Mass Communication at HYU examines how SNS has such a great ripple effect among people. He cited Pareto’s law or the so-called 20 versus 80 principle, to deploy his arguments. “Pareto’s law indicates that 80 percent of the total result comes from 20 percent of the total cause. This principle was initially suggested by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 20 percent of the Italian population held 80 percent of the total wealth of Italy and this theory actually worked when applied to extensive areas of study from ecosystems to economics. Pareto’s law can also explain the functioning of conservative media outlets, implying that 20 percent of society monopolizes information. 80 percent of the population receives only what the other 20 percent provides. However, as SNS were introduced the influence of those people who were between the 20 percent of monopolies and the 80 percent of receivers grew larger. They actively took part in producing and delivering information by re-tweeting, leaving comments on others’ tweets, and scrapping other people’s postings. Therefore, the availability of access to information between this 20 percent and 80 percent increased dramatically encouraging the entire range of citizens to make their voices heard and circulate a variety of information. That is how SNS has become so influential to people nowadays,” said professor Sohn.
The rising in popularity of I am a ggomsu is a typical example that shows how SNS can exercise a powerful influence on people in Korea. I am a ggomsu is an Internet podcast program in Korea which is produced by the Ddanziilbo, a Korean newspaper. The program functions as an outlet for revealing issues regarding political circles which had not been revealed to the public by the mainstream media press of Korea due to the sensitive nature of these issues. The main subject matter of the program concerns President Lee Myung-bak and the people around him.
The issues covered during the program are expanded and reproduced through SNS. SNS users post comments regarding the issues they have heard during the program and circulate the news rapidly and extensively among other users. “I saw a lot of remarks about I am a ggaomsu on my friends’ Facebook pages. People were constantly talking about the issues mentioned in I am a ggomsu so I decided to listen to the program. The program was discussing the DDos attack on the ROK National Election Commission site at that time. I got interested in the incident and wanted to learn more about the issue,” said Park Hye-mi, a student on leave of absence in the Department of Philosophy at HYU.
Yet to Call the Movement Satisfactory Enough
Although SNS have induced political interest from the youth and therefore have drawn increased political participation from them, it is too soon to call the trend satisfactory enough. People in their twenties often do not have firm ground of what political ideas they should believe in and support. According to a survey conducted by the Hanyang Journal(The HJ), 34.4 percent of Hanyangians replied negatively when they were asked if today’s youth have a clear idea about where they stand politically whereas only 22.2 percent replied positively. Young people fluctuate between various political opinions and get easily influenced by political propaganda. Accordingly, people in their twenties have a tendency to accept others’ political assertion and follow their ideas without much thinking and questioning.
Recently, political parties have laid down programs which encourage people in their twenties and thirties to be candidates for the 19th general election on April 11th. The Democratic United Party(DUP), a unification of opposition parties, announced that they would adopt the youth proportional representation system. This aims to grant public recommendations to one man and one woman in their twenties and thirties respectively, consequently putting forward four young nominees in total. The DUP borrowed ideas from Superstar K, a popular survival audition program which chooses the best singer amongst contestants. The youth proportional representation system promoted by the DUP included an audition process called ‘Rock Festival’ where contestants were required to upload videos about their stories onto YouTube. Their contents got evaluated and 48 contestants were selected to reach the next level.
The United Progressive Party also came up with a similar policy called ‘The Great Advance’ to elect young candidates for the upcoming general election. Another party, the Saenuri Party recruited popular celebrities as nominees including Gang Sung-tae who is dubbed the “god of study.” He launched a web site and uploaded online lectures telling students the secrets behind successful studying. He is already a celebrity among those who have watched his lectures online.
The purpose of such projects by political parties is appreciable. The projects aim to reflect the voice of the youth, overcome overall indifference regarding political situations, and attract the younger generations to take part in political activities more actively. “Policies such as the youth proportional representation system can be favorable by endowing the youth with opportunities to speak for themselves,” said professor Han Dong-sub in the Division of Journalism and Mass Communication at HYU.
However, there are vulnerable points regarding those projects promoted by the various political parties. The screening procedure of the DUP copies the prevailing survival audition styles and it is hard for the party to avoid criticism of promoting image marketing. “This project could end merely as an eventful hype which does not carry out its original purpose,” said professor Kim Kyung-min. The Saenuri party can also not be excluded from probable criticism because they scouted a person of popularity to gain public support.
The real problem arises when young people do not acknowledge the fact that they are merely used as methods for gaining popularity. “I have watched uploaded videos of contestants’ storytelling on YouTube and watched the whole procedure of selecting winners. I found it quite absurd that young people entered contests which political parties had intentionally arranged for hidden purposes. I felt that young people without certain political beliefs were just used by politicians for their own gain,” said a Hanyangian who asked to remain anonymous. Those projects might not carry out its original goal but instead the youth without a certain perspective in politics could be merely exploited by political parties for their hidden goals.
However the more essential problem young people face is the fact that they lack a sense of ownership regarding politics. Surely SNS have provided channels for the youth to let out their political views more actively but their interest and participation are still too low. According to a survey conducted by the HJ, 45.5 percent of Hanyangians replied that they were not interested in political issues. Also when asked what they thought of the youth proportional election system promoted by DUP, 44.6 percent of Hanyangians replied that they did not know what the system was. The result implies that students do not even know about policies that are significantly related to them. “There might be lots of other reasons why the youth do not pay attention to political circumstances. However, the main reason is that the youth do not realize they are the real masters of this country and the only way to express their opinions is to take interest in politics and participate more voluntarily,” said professor Ryoo.
A Precedent of Elevated Politics: Germany
Germany is famous for its citizen’s active participation in politics. A noticeable fact is that in Germany there is a well-built infrastructure for educating its citizens about politics. The need for a systematic education programs was insisted by Germany’s self-reflective movement after the collapse of the Nazi regime. Germans realized that there was a need to replace the political structure of authoritarian and anti-democratic manifestation. In 1963, the Bundeszentrale fur politische Bildung(BPB) otherwise known in English as the Federal Agency for Civic Education was established. The agency aimed to increase the citizen’s understanding in politics, help its citizens develop firm opinions about politics and increase the overall participation of its citizens. The BPB also provides its participants with a variety of information regarding contemporary-politics. “The BPB has interesting publications on various current topics. The latest publications contain political issues such as the Arab spring, Syrian revolution, Afghanistan politics, and Japan after Fukushima. The BPB provides a lot of professional information on a free basis which helps citizens in Germany to understand core issues in the world,” said Philipp Pfefferle, a German exchange student in HYU from University of Esslingen.
The principles that political education in Germany stands for are worth looking at closely. They include a ban on one-sided brainwashing or indoctrination, acknowledgement of various spectrums of political views, and arrangement of education programs based on participants’ levels and knowledge. Overall, political education in Germany aims to provide objective information on political issues and therefore help elevate citizens’ sense of rights and responsibility regarding politics.
It is recommended that political education programs be included in school curriculum for at least two hours a week in every middle and high school in Germany. “I took social and political studies as a school subject from 8th grade until graduation. Students are required to study social and political studies for a period of two years,” said Pfefferle. If the youth in Korea were provided with such useful education programs since young as German students, there could be less danger of Korea’s youth becoming agitated by political propaganda. Moreover, there would be less danger of the pervasive indifference toward politics by the youth in Korea.
For the Promising Politics in Korea
Issues such as the syndrome of I am a ggomsu, the unexpected holding of by-elections for the Seoul mayor and half-price tuition fees for university students are few of the controversial issues that arose in 2011. In fact, a series of incidents surrounding political circles suggest that the political situation in Korea is not as stable as first thought but rather becoming more disorderly. “The rising of disputes involving society are a typical sign indicating that the political circumstances are not that promising,” said professor Hong Yong-pyo.
As numerous political problems occurred, people especially in their twenties expressed their anger towards politicians and strongly criticized them through SNS. According to a survey conducted by the HJ, 86.4 percent of Hanyangians replied that they had seen others’ comments about politics on SNS. SNS were flooded with comments by users’ expressing political opinions, especially harsh critiques towards the incompetency of those in politics.
However the youth’s interests in politics are still not as strong as their criticism and their participation is still not enough. It seems that the young people pay more attention to politics only when controversial issues arise and their participation seems superficial and one-off. The essential cause of this problem is people’s lack of political knowledge and understanding. The youth remain cynical and skeptical toward politicians and do not realize that they can actually change the landscape of politics if they get involved more. “People might grow distrust towards politicians after seeing their lack of competency. Nevertheless, it is obvious that maintaining a cynical and indifferent attitude towards politics will not lead to a better political environment in the future,” said professor Hong.
Awareness of the importance of sincere interest and active participation in politics sounds cliche, but is the best solution for the current problem. Young people should realize that it is their duty as well as their responsibility to pay attention to politics and get more involved. Yeo Su-jin, a Sophomore in the Division of Business Administration at HYU said, “I think the best and the only way to present my view on government policies is to take an interest in politics and actively participate. I will demonstrate my political views by constantly updating my political knowledge and exercising my right to vote in upcoming elections."