On Jan. 13th, 2017, on the day when we Korean Women Workers Association had our annual meeting, Bokgyeong Seo, Research Professor at Sogang Institute of Political Studies, gave us a lecture before the meeting's main event. Throughout Professor Seo's lecture, many assumptions about the recent monopoly of state affairs in South Korean and the citizen's protests against it were examined with empirical evidence and theories. Below is a summary of her lecture. 

   Her first point was made on a position which attributed the recent monopoly of state affairs to the gender of President Park. According to Professor Seo, who should be blamed for the recent monopoly of state affairs is not just President Park, but the whole system of South Korean government, ruling party, and some media corporations, which are mostly made up of men. Professor Seo pointed out the fact that the constitution of Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in 1919 had guaranteed the franchise of people, regardless of their social status, class, and gender. She urged South Koreans not to be misled by some groundless position attributing the recent monopoly of state affairs to President Park's gender, as they were the citizens of a nation which had announced gender equality more than one hundred years ago. Today's breakdown of Korean government had been made possible not just by President Park alone, but by all those in power in South Korean society, Professor Seo insisted. 

   According to the survey conducted jointly by Naeil Daily Newspaper and Sogang Institute of Political Studies in December, 2016, the survey respondents who had participated in the protests against the recent monopoly of state affairs pointed out their anxiety about the future as the biggest reason for their participation in the protests. As the most severe conflict in today's South Korean society, 40.1% and 33.2% of the survey respondents pointed out class conflicts and ideological conflicts, respectively. In a  survey conducted three years ago in December, 2013, 34.9% and 39.4% of the respondents chose class conflicts and ideological conflicts, respectively, as the most severe social conflicts in South Korea. The survey result also shows how seriously the issue of class conflicts is being taken among the working-class citizens. The proportion of people who think the issue of class conflicts as a severe problem is 44.1% in the 2016 survey, while 29.1% in the 2013 survey. In the 2016 survey, only 10.7% of respondents in 20s and 8.1% of those in 30s regarded the distribution of wealth in South Korean society as equitable, and even among the respondents in their 60s, the proportion reached only 20.1%. According to Professor Seo, the main driving force which has issued the recent monopoly of state affairs is the choice South Korean citizens made in their 20th general election. As South Korean citizens found out through the election the others were also thinking of President Park's government as problematic, they began to more openly protest against its maladministration cases.

   As the cause of the recent monopoly of state affairs, 49.3% of respondents in 20's and 40.1% of those in 30's point out corrupt relationship among the conglomerates, government officials, and the prosecution. For 46.5% of respondents in 40's, 48.2% of those in 50's, and 40.8% of those in 60's, it is President Park's abnormal governing of administration which caused the recent monopoly of state affairs. This survey result shows that those in their 20s and 30s would be  satisfied only after fundamentally changing South Korean politics while those over 40 could feel okay with just changing the government. This can be also found out in the survey on the people's sense of political efficacy. 'Sense of political efficacy' measures how strongly a person believes s/he has the ability to influence politics. While the proportion of respondents who express disagreement with their inability to influence politics was 29% in a survey conducted in June 2016, it reached 53.3% in another survey conducted six months later. As before in South Korean society, when people's sense of political efficacy is low, their protests cannot fundamentally change their everyday political system. South Korean politicians knew this very well, so they used to resume their corruption once people's protests ceased. Now, however, 53.3% of the survey respondents believe their capability to change their politics. They believe they are better at making a change in the political system than the politicians. This means South Korean citizens are now less likely to overlook politicians' corruption than in the past. 

   In South Korea, it is the group aged from 35 to 44 who show the most radical positions in their political and economic issues. This might be because this generation experienced the IMF crisis in 1997 at the age of 17 through 25, which is a critical time to develop one's political opinions. They experienced a radical change in their labor environment, as many regular,  permanent positions were replaced by temporary, unstable ones after the crisis. Their anger and dissatisfaction with their labor environment made themselves have the most radical positions in the political issues. The younger generation, aged from 25 to 33, has different characteristics.  This is the first generation in South Korean society who has developed their sense of democratic rights from birth. Therefore, this group shows the most radical position in the issues of gender equality. Another interesting group is those in their 60s, as they have even more conservative positions in the political issues than those over 70. This is probably because they had highly nationalistic public education under the military dictatorship in the 1960s. 

   A graph on the age-specific sense of political efficacy shows that in every age group, sense of political efficacy is higher in December, 2016 than in June, 2016. Among the respondents in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, the proportion of people expressing their strong sense of political efficacy reaches more than 50%. 

   The point is it is those in their 50s who hold the casting vote in the elections. Although those aged from 19 to 49 make up 54% of the total voters, because of their low turnout, they only account for 40% among the actual voters. Once those in their 50s have more progressive positions on the political issues, we can make a bigger change. Those in their 50s are the most affluent among the all age groups, and among the all members of the National Assembly, the proportion of those in their 50s is the highest. It is this age group being represented more than its actual number in South Korean politics. In the last presidential election, their turnout reached 82%.

   Now, we can see this group in their 50s is beginning to act. Compared to those in the protests in 2008, participants in the recent protests in 2016 show more equitable distribution in their gender and age. This was possible as more women in their 40s and 50s participated in the recent protests. Interestingly, for more than half of the participants in the recent protests, it was their first-time experience to come out to the streets to demonstrate. It is not groundless to say that the total number of participants in the protests against the government reached ten million in 2016. 76.7% of the survey respondents in December, 2016 answered the protests against President Park's government should be continued until she entirely resigned the presidency. 

   Below are the typical survey questions which political scientists use to measure how people think of their political system; first, "democracy is always better than any other political system", second, "sometimes dictatorship is better than democracy", third, "between democracy and dictatorship, I do not mind which of them will be chosen." The below graph shows how South Korean citizens have answered since 1996 to the first question, "democracy is always better than any other political system." 

The answers to this very question can be also used to analyze how people think of social and political change. Based on the below graph, Professor Seo supposes how South Korean citizens in their 50s have felt about their governments. In 2002, they voted for the progressive ruling party as they had some empathy with the government which had been struggling with the IMF crisis. Once the progressive party came into power again with President Roh, Moo-hyun, citizens in their 50s got dissatisfied with his government as they felt his presidency did not help so much to improve their living. This is why the conservative party could come into power in 2007. One year later, in the general election in 2008, they showed the lowest voter turnout. In the 18th presidential election in 2012, they chose a five-term congresswoman Park, Geun-hye as they felt more familiar with her compared to her opponent Moon, Jae-in. However, their living got even worse, and they lost their trust in the political system, which could be shown in their responses to this first question in a survey in June, 2016. Once almost half of the respondents agree with this first question, political scientists see this as a sign of social change. After experiencing a series of maladministration cases of President Park's government, finally they came to a moment of reflection on their political situation. In the last survey in December, 2016, the proportion of respondents who agreed with the first question, "democracy is always better than any other political system" reached 75.5%, which was the highest proportion since 1996. 


   Citizens in their 20s through 40s will never stop. Once they experience their strong sense of political efficacy, they will hardly stand social and political system which keeps themselves poor and powerless. As our future is for this young generation, political support from those in their 50s is critical. Therefore, we need to organize the voices from those in their 50s. Most of the people participating in the recent protests are from the middle-class, who are capable of expressing their voices. However, those in their 50s, especially lower income, women workers working long hours are less capable of expressing their political opinions. They hardly have enough time to read newspapers or watch TV news. What we need to do is listen to them, not teach them, so that they can more freely express themselves on the political issues. 

   When our belongings are broken, we have two options; either repairing and reusing them, or throwing them away and buying the new ones. Unfortunately, our politics cannot be just thrown away. It should keep working with every single penny we pay for the tax. What we need to do is correct our malfunctioning politics, that is to make our public system work for its real owner, the citizens. 

Posted by KWWA