South Korea’s by-elections on 7 April resulted in a landslide victory for the opposition People Power Party (PPP), including mayors in Seoul and Busan — the country’s two largest cities. The defeat of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) accelerates President Moon Jae-in’s descent into a lame-duck, a moniker that will stick him throughout his final year in office. Youngmi Kim specially for the East Asia Forum.
What stands out from the recent elections is the emerging cleavages between generations and genders. Young South Korean voters in their 20s and 30s, who historically vote left, have turned into swing voters, switching their support from the DP to the PPP. Notably, 72.5 per cent of male voters in their 20s supported the PPP’s candidate for Seoul’s mayoral race. The ruling DP and its supporters are analysing its failure in the recent elections. Conclusions about what went wrong and how to move forward are deeply and acrimoniously divided within and outside of the party.
The opposition built an electoral coalition to consolidate support — and voters. Given that the DP candidate Park Young-sun was ahead in the polls as recently as a month before the elections, the coalition turned out to be an effective electoral strategy to consolidate the opposition against the DP. But voters also turned on the DP due to the ongoing insider property speculation scandal, which revealed extensive corruption among civil servants who illegally used internal information concerning urban development plans converting farming areas to housing developments for personal profit.
The timing of the so-called LH scandal in March was especially unfortunate for the DP, which had failed to institute real estate reform. Instead, apartment prices in some major cities have doubled or even tripled since Moon took office. The ‘LH scandal’, along with various improprieties by members of Moon’s cabinet and the ruling party, contributed to the DP’s by-election defeats.
In addition to these issues, young men in South Korea are becoming more receptive to conservative or alt-right political views. Frustrated over a perceived lack of opportunity and diminished social status, young South Korean men harbour increasingly radicalised views about gender equality. This has led to a deepening of an already pervasive misogyny across South Korean society and threatens to derail decades of progress towards gender equality. In the early 2000s, the Constitutional Court of Korea ruled that the additional points that South Korean men applying for government jobs used to receive for completing military service to be unconstitutional. Such a rule structurally made the playing field far from level for women, yet still stoked the flames of discontent for young men.
This contributed to the of popularisation of derogatory terms such as Doenjangnyeo (miso girl), Kimchinyeo (kimchi girl) and Mumchung (mum-roach) towards women in their 20s and 30s. These terms portray women as materialists relying on incomes from fathers, boyfriends or husbands.
In the immediate aftermath of the April electoral defeat, some DP politicians shared their analysis of why the party failed. They noted that the party’s poor performance reflected obliviousness to what young voters care most about. Some MPs later concluded that unfair treatment toward men persuaded some male voters to vote for the PPP and proposed reforms to government hiring practices and the country’s compulsory military service to promote equality.
South Korean society has long been marked by pervasive inequalities and misogyny. The gains towards gender equality made in the last two decades are now being called into question by backlash generated by young male voters and online activists. Amid an increasingly polarised debate, what is really missing is a serious conversation concerning equal and fair opportunities for quality education, a reasonably well-paying job, and curbing corruption and unearned privilege by the elite.
As South Korea prepares to select a new president early next year, how the DP and PPP respond to such challenges, and whether they offer real, long-term solutions will shape the months ahead.
Youngmi Kim is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh.