Is South Korea jaded with democracy?

South Korea’s legislative elections took place Wednesday, with the lowest voter turnout in Korean history - 46% - giving rise to the question as to how such a young democracy could have become so jaded within one generation.



Voter turnout in South Korea’s legislative elections on Wednesday was the lowest in Korean history– 46% of an electorate numbering 37.7 million. This gives rise to the question as to how such a young democracy could have become so jaded so quickly – going from birth to indifference within one generation. The first truly post-democratic generation also appears to be the first indifferent generation. 


The dropoff in Korean voting has been precipitous, surprising in a nation that has only had truly free and democratic elections for 20 years, since President Roh Tae Woo was elected to lead the sixth republic in December 1987. As recently as 2004, the turnout for the legislative elections was 60%.


Professor Soo-Bok Jung, a Korean visiting scholar at France’s elite Ecole de hauts édudes de sciences sociales, in an interview with FRANCE 24, explained, “For South Koreans, 20 years is a long time.”


The period bracketing Korea’s true democracy roughly coincides with the Korean equivalent of Generation X – which in Korea is referred to as the “386 generation”, he explains.  The complicated numerical acronym represents South Koreans who entered the age of 30 (the “3”) in the final decade of the 20th century; attended university in the 1980s (the “8”); and were born in the 1960s (the “6”).


Jung elaborated, “South Korean voters are growing complacent because democracy in their countryis no longer in danger.”


Another reason for the low participation, explained Jung, is that the political parties have “become very similar,” in contrast to previous elections in which party platforms were dealing with pressing issues requiring firm stances – North Korea, women’s rights, etc.


At first blush, it might appear normal that a democracy with as rapid a rise in both political reform and economic strength might experience an accelerated version of the democratic trajectory – beginning with high hopes and ending with participation levels that nearly approach those of the US.  Not so, says Jung. “This is not normal at all. Democracy in South Korea cannot survive without higher future turnouts.”

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