By Seong Han-yong, political correspondent
A woman in her late 30s, owner of a small bar near Seoul's Hongik University, an area popular with young people, called up a friend at three in the morning the day after voting in the presidential election.
"I'm going to be nasty now," she said. "I'm not going to be nice anymore. I'm not going to pay my taxes, not any of it." She hugged her younger friend and cried.
Another woman, this one in her mid-30s and married, said she wasn't going to pay any attention to politics anymore. She had high hopes when she voted for Democratic United Party candidate Moon Jae-in - the first time she could remember feeling that way. But he lost. Politics are not the answer, she concluded.
A twenty-something university student living away from home suddenly called her father after midnight on Dec. 20. "Why is the world this way?" the student protested to the shocked father. Her close friends had all voted for Moon, and she could not accept the outcome.
Meanwhile, other students in their early to mid-20s were sending messages to friends venting their frustrations.
"It's sad and frustrating," wrote one. "What do we do now? I try to think positively and I just cry. It feels like I'm doing something wrong."
"It's the people in their forties who elected Roh Moo-hyun ten years ago," wrote another. "Now that they're in their fifties. . . ."
Voters who picked Moon have been hit hard by the outcome of the presidential election, which went to conservative Saenuri Party candidate Park Geun-hye. But the situation is bordering on collective panic for those in their twenties and thirties, who overwhelmingly voted for Moon. In many cases, friction has developed between parents who picked Park and their children who picked Moon.
The main reason is just how hard the younger voters are taking the result.
First, they attempted a veritable "election revolution" through the unprecedented alliance of Moon and independent Ahn Cheol-soo in the hopes of changing the world, only to see the dream crushed by a more solidly entrenched political establishment.
The generation gap in voting was far stronger in this election than ever before. Moon was picked by 65.8% of voters in their twenties and 66.5% of voters in their thirties - higher even than the respective rates of 59% and 59.3% who went for Roh in 2002. Those in their forties voted roughly half-and-half for Roh (48.1%) and conservative Lee Hoi-chang (47.9%) that year, but the age group favored Moon over Park by a 55.6% to 44.1% margin this year. Those voters were in their thirties ten years ago.
But the combined strength of voters in their fifties and sixties has also been formidable. In 2002, 57.9% of fiftysomethings and 63.5% of sixty-and-overs went for Lee. This time around, Park drew 62.5% of votes from the former and fully 72.3% from the latter. In some sense, the outcome of the election was decided by the same voters in their fifties who supported Roh and Lee at roughly equal levels ten years ago - only this time, they tipped decisively toward Park.
Second, people in their 20s have no real experience with defeat, which makes the shock that much greater. Those who have just passed their late teens and early twenties, when they are first becoming politically aware, have no experience with political unity, but they haven't yet tasted defeat either. They won in 2002, when the voting generation gap first became apparent.
The group ahead of them, now in their forties, are the so-called "386" Generation, which experiencing the Chun Doo-hwan coup that came after 1980's Seoul Spring. That generation won their June 1987 battle for democracy, but also saw their hopes dashed with the failure of Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung to strike a deal and avoid splitting the vote. They saw Kim Young-sam claim the 1992 election after the three-party merger of 1990, discovering that injustice could lead to victory. In short, they went through the wringer. During this year’s election, they tended to accept the possibility of a loss. But the situation is different for the voters in their twenties and thirties, who never had that experience of thwarted hopes.
What kinds of aftereffects will the generation gap bring in the days to come? One possibility is that the younger voters' political phobia could deepen. This would be welcome news for the Saenuri Party and conservatives in their fifties and sixties, but a political environment where the younger generation does not participate bodes ill for the future of the country. Another possibility is an all-out generational conflict. With the proper healing and discipline, though, it could also be an engine for democracy.
So what now? Ahn Cheol-soo, for one, might help the healing process, but he's currently in the United States. Some responsibility for the younger voters' despondency falls on the DUP, civil society, and progressive media, which worked to mobilize them. Now they owe the younger voters an apology and some consolation. They need to send the message that hopes only come true after an experience with defeat.
There is also something President-elect Park Geun-hye, the Saenuri Party, and the older people in their fifties and sixties need to do. They need to stop trying to bedazzle younger people with "event politics." They need to embrace the problems of younger people as their own and work to solve them. That is the most important kind of unity.
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