[Column] Era of millennial politics

Posted on : 2021-06-11 16:43 KST Modified on : 2021-06-11 16:43 KST
Along with the millennial politics of the right, I’m looking forward to a millennial politics of the left that will add to Korea’s political dynamism
Then-candidate for the People Power Party leadership Lee Jun-seok gives a speech on June 4 at a joint speech session for candidates in Daejeon. (Yonhap News)
Then-candidate for the People Power Party leadership Lee Jun-seok gives a speech on June 4 at a joint speech session for candidates in Daejeon. (Yonhap News)
Back Ki-chul
Back Ki-chul

By Back Ki-chul, executive editor

About 10 days ago, I made a bet with some friends in a KakaoTalk chatroom about the election for leadership of the People Power Party (PPP), Korea’s main opposition party. Eight out of 10 people in the chat bet that 36-year-old Lee Jun-seok would become head of the PPP, while two people — including myself — bet against him.

Combined, the older candidates had far more support than Lee, and I didn’t think the party would hand over power to nominate candidates for next year’s local elections to a greenhorn in his 30s.

But at the moment, my old-fashioned intuition as a reporter may likely let me down in the PPP’s national convention on Friday.

If Lee pulls through, it will go down as a monumental episode in Korean politics. The PPP’s party members and supporters seem determined to make a big gamble.

Lee’s victory would once again illustrate the dynamic nature of Korean politics; even his defeat would trigger a tectonic realignment of the political landscape.

The Lee phenomenon shows we’re witnessing the emergence of what might be called “millennial politics.” The rise of Lee Jun-seok, born in 1985, shows that the debate about a generational shift, in which millennials supplant preceding generations, isn’t empty talk but reality.

The millennial politics described by the thirtysomething authors of “The Era of Overtaking,” published at the beginning of this year, is going mainstream among Korea’s conservatives.

Koreans born in the 1980s were the first generation to grow up enjoying all the benefits of industrialization and democratization. They were also the last generation to personally witness Korea’s transition from a developing country to a developed country.

These Koreans are moderates who recognize the roles of the preceding two generations — the industrializers and the democratizers. But they’re also subversive in their criticism of the “hostile symbiosis” of those generations in their struggle to hold on to power.

That was symbolized by Lee Jun-seok’s remark in his book “Fair Competition” two years ago that “the young generation needs to move according to its own agenda, rather than being squashed under the buttocks of the industrializing and democratizing generations.”

People in their 20s generally focus their criticism on what has been called the 386 Generation — those born in the 1960s, who played an instrumental role in Korea’s democratization in the 1980s.

In his book “Thinking About K,” Lim Myeong-muk, born in 1994, portrays the 386 Generation as virtual monsters. According to Lim, members of that generation are guilty of hypocrisy both in their mindset, which straddles progressive liberalism on the one hand and a leftist doctrine of national liberation on the other and in their lifestyle, in which they claim to be part of the counterculture while actually enjoying all the benefits of the upper-middle class.

The scandal of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk illustrated these points more dramatically than any drama could, Lim argues in his book.

There are some problems with this book, including its unfounded definition of the 386 Generation’s ideological position and its conflation of the entire 386 Generation with its political wing. Regardless, it’s shocking to see how the 386 Generation appears to people in their 20s.

Lee Jun-seok’s “millennial politics” contains many signs of political problems. Lee himself is clearly limited because his rise is based on stirring up gender conflict and burnishing his image in the media rather than on actual political accomplishments.

Lee has incited anti-feminist sentiment among millennial men by claiming that millennial women don’t face discrimination, which may prove to be a double-edged sword.

The sexual misconduct of former Seoul mayor Park Won-soon and former Busan mayor Oh Keo-don and the recent suicide of a female master sergeant in the Air Force who had suffered sexual harassment show that women are still targets of unfair treatment, and even criminal behavior, from men.

Statistics also show that women in their 20s are only paid 80% as much as men in their 20s with the same jobs.

Young people are the ones groaning at the bottom of an unequal society. Young men face unprecedented difficulties, but young women endure double the pain since they’re exposed to additional discrimination. Korean society is still passing through the long tunnel of the “#MeToo revolution.”

Politicians need to face the difficulties faced by young people of both genders, rather than trying to gain an advantage by stirring up conflict between them. Lee Jun-seok’s politics is anti-political in the sense that he completely ignores young women’s twofold pain.

Lee’s creed of fairness is also subject to debate. He calls for a meritocratic system that privileges talent and testing while cracking down on cheating and rule-breaking. But it’s hard to see that as representing the interest of all young people.

While raw talent plays a role in one’s skills, academic credentials, and status, class and wealth, which are inherited, play an even bigger role. When people’s starting point is different, calling for merit-based selection basically makes “fairness” the preserve of young people in the elite upper class.

Lee’s view on North Korea — regarding it purely as the target for “unification by absorption” — is also peculiar. When he says that only North Koreans, and not South Koreans, need to be educated for unification, it sounds like a recipe for confrontation rather than peace.

That fails to match the public’s desire for peace.

But despite all that, Lee Jun-seok has made peace with the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, the former president who kickstarted his political career and has brought a much-needed infusion of young blood to a graying conservative party.

Lee has identified Kim Jong-in as the living figure whom he most admires. Lee’s allegiance to Kim, as well as Yoo Seung-min, doesn’t seem to be a liability in today’s PPP.

The team of Yoon Seok-youl and Lee Jun-seok would seem to be the strongest option available to the PPP for next year’s presidential election.

The tsunami of millennial politics is sure to wash away the old-fashioned political preference for elders and condescension toward the young. And indeed, such a seismic shift was desperately needed in the conservative camp.

But now that need is even direr among progressives. Even if not for the Cho Kuk scandal, progressives can’t afford to cling to the past.

Along with the millennial politics of the right, I’m looking forward to a millennial politics of the left that will add to Korea’s political dynamism.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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