SEOUL – Jung Seong-hoon, 22, shared the frustration of young South Koreans who face a bleak future: jobs are scarce, rents are high and debt is mounting. Last month he ran for a seat in his local city legislature and won.
Mr. Jung is an example of the young blood flocking to South Korean politics after lawmakers lowered the minimum age for political office from 25 to 18 this year. up from 238 in 2018. Of the 4,131 people who won their races, 11 were under the age of 24, including the youngest election winner in the country’s history, a 19-year-old.
But even before beginning their term on Friday, they ran into problems as old as politics itself. They say they face a political ecosystem dominated by out-of-touch politicians in their 50s and 60s, one unaffordable high bar for fundraising and a shady network of party officials to win their favor in order to stand a chance.
They have to overcome harsh cultural barriers (age determines a person’s social status to a large extent) and deal with an older constituency they sometimes dismiss as “inexperienced” and “gullible”, some complain.
“Young people are expected to help make the world a better place, but many people express concerns about our young age,” said Lee Ja-hyung, 23, who was elected to the assembly in Gyeonggi province near Seoul became. “They worry that our judgment is not fully developed and that we are too easily influenced by those around us.”
This makes it more difficult for the young hopefuls to secure a major political party nomination, which often requires them to know party officials personally. In the conservative People Power Party, local party council leaders have the power to nominate a candidate. In the liberal Democratic Party, candidates not only have to be nominated, they also have to win primary elections in order to run in the election.
“There was a firm notion that politics is for adults, according to a long-established Confucian culture,” said Noh Woong-rae, 64, a member of the National Assembly.
The age limit for national political candidates is 25 in many Asian countries, including Japan, India, the Philippines and Thailand. The limit is 21 in Hong Kong and Singapore, and 23 in Taiwan. In the United States, you must be at least 30 years old to become a senator and at least 25 to become an MP. Few teenagers have been elected to the state legislature or run for city council seats. A handful of countries, including Germany, allow 18-year-olds to stand for election to a national legislative chamber.
In South Korea, Mr Noh was among lawmakers campaigning to lower the minimum age for candidates, arguing that the candidate age should match the voting age, which has been 20 since 1960. Others wanted to abolish age limits entirely.
The movement to change the law was linked to the student-led Democratic protests of 1987. Activists said they wanted to dispel the notion that political participation should be reserved for the elite, an idea that dates back to Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship.
Efforts were gradually successful: the voting age was lowered to 19 in 2005. In 2019, the National Assembly approved a further reduction to 18 years. That year, the legislature lowered the age limit for candidacy.
“It’s nice to have some experience or knowledge, but I don’t think politics necessarily requires a great deal of it,” said Park Joo-min, 48, another MP.
Despite the change, Mr. Jung, the 22-year-old who was elected to the city assembly of Yangsan in South Gyeongsang Province, said that speaking to a party official to try to be nominated felt “like that banging your head against the wall”. (He has campaigned on promises to help strengthen the city’s transportation infrastructure.)
Fundraising is also a particular challenge, with some candidates saying they need to raise about 20 million South Korean won (about $15,400) to run successful campaigns.
Lee Yechan, 22, who was elected to the Yeongdeungpo-gu District Assembly in Seoul, said of the campaign funding, “I used up all the savings I had from a year-long internship and part-time job as a student teacher. I even took out a loan – interest rates are high.”
Attracted to politics by a mixture of idealism and a belief that they could help steer the country in a better direction, some face compromises.
On the eve of his inauguration, Mr. Jung said: “While I feel responsible for addressing young people’s issues, I do not intend to focus on that. I think addressing young people’s issues just because I’m young will lead to hostility.”
For Cheon Seung-ah, 19, the youngest elected politician, victory came at a price. She was nominated by her local party council chairwoman Kim Hyun-ah, 52, to attract more young women to the People Power Party. (Many members have been accused of amplifying anti-feminist slogans.)
In an interview, Ms. Cheon described her hopes for expanding enrichment programs for the city’s children and improving the city’s transportation system. Then, after she won, members of her own party council, including some women who had been fighting for a nomination for her seat, launched an attack. According to a complaint signed by six council members, she had claimed a non-existent title on the council’s youth committee on her resume.
The complaint was accepted by the Seoul Central District Procuratorate.
Prosecutors are also investigating dozens of other winners of June’s elections. Attacks are common against candidates whose nomination by a local party council leader played a large part in their electoral victory, like Ms. Cheon. It’s easy to question their legitimacy because their victory is seen as less democratic. But few of these attacks have been officially accepted as legal complaints.
Ms Cheon has denied the claim, saying, “The hardest part was the toll the attacks took on my mental health.”
Ms Kim has also dismissed the suggestion that her charge’s title was something inappropriate. Under the party’s rules, Ms Kim said she has the sole prerogative to appoint people to the council and give them titles. “I am under no obligation to seek permission from or notify members of the council,” she said.
One of Ms. Cheon’s challengers, Lee Kang-hwan, the council’s vice chairman, said in an interview that he resigned after learning she was the nominee. He also said he had hoped she would resign.
On Friday, Ms. Cheon began her tenure as the youngest city councilor in Goyang. On Monday, prosecutors commissioned a police department to investigate her case.
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