For those that follow South Korea’s politics and foreign affairs, the generation gaps that exist across a variety of issues are part and parcel to the subject. Steven Denney has touched on the issue for The Diplomat, Jiyoon Kim outlined an ongoing catalyst for these generational gaps—a transformation in national identity—and Steven and I also discussed this in a short piece on South Korea’s new nationalism. But nothing serves to crystallize these generational gaps better than a good old-fashioned public opinion survey.
In its latest poll, Gallup Korea1 found approval for South Korea’s President, Park Geun-hye, to be 40 percent [link in Korean]. But looking into those numbers reveals a massive generational gap on attitudes towards the president. Among those aged 60 or older, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) approve of the job she is doing. Moving down in age brackets2 also means a reduction in presidential approval. The nadir comes among those in their 20s, where just 13 percent approve of her job performance. That creates a 60 percentage point gap between the oldest Koreans in the survey and the youngest.
To put that in some perspective, let’s look at President Obama’s approval rating. While 49 percent of Americans approve of his job performance as of the November 15, 2015 Gallup poll, the generational gap was a mere 20 percentage points. Among those 65 and older, 43 percent approved of President Obama’s performance while that number was 63 percent among those aged 18-29. Of course, the United States is not facing the same generational pressures, but is acutely divided along party lines. There, the approval rate gap is a whopping 75 percentage points with 85 percent of Democrats approving and just 10 percent of Republicans stating the same.
So, in framing the importance of the generational division in Korea, it is helpful to think about it along the lines of the seriousness of the partisan divisions in the United States. But there is one major difference: in the United States there is currently a viable opposition. (Feel free to debate the definition of viable amongst yourselves.) In Korea, it is not clear that this is the case. The opposition party there continues to garner support from roughly 20 percent of the population, and about the same support from Korea’s youth, just as it has for the last several years. In fact, the opposition hasn’t won a major national election since the 2004 National Assembly campaign.
Korea’s youth is left with a ruling party it does not support and an opposition party it cannot support. Add to this the fact that Korea is a rapidly aging society—meaning the vote share of Korea’s youth is being diminished in terms of the overall electorate—and a picture begins to emerge of a Korean society that will see its youth increasingly marginalized from politics.
This does not bode well for South Korea. The greatest danger is that its youth will completely unplug from the political process, leaving the political process and the country’s leadership to ossify further even as Korea’s internal and external challenges increase.