SEOUL: Thirty years after South Korea became a democracy, voters born in the period go to the polls Tuesday frustrated over their prospects and demanding change as growth slows and job prospects fade.
The decades-long “Miracle on the Han”—named after the river that flows through Seoul—propelled the country from a war-ravaged ruin to Asia’s fourth-largest economy and the ranks of the OECD.
But its younger voters complain bitterly that times have changed dramatically from their parents’ generation, when hard work paid off with wealth and success regardless of social origin.
Unemployment among youth—defined as those under 30—has risen for five consecutive years to hit an all-time high of 9.8 percent in 2016, more than double the overall average.
South Korea is a notoriously performance-driven country, where the pressure to get into a prestigious university is so intense that most children begin after-hours studies at cramming centres while at primary school.
But for those in their 20s and 30s, attending the best educational institutions no longer guarantees a decent job, with companies reluctant to hire in the face of slowing growth, now below three percent a year.
According to reports, the giant conglomerates that dominate the economy such as Samsung, SK and Hyundai receive hundreds of thousands of applications a year for just a few thousand positions.
A Korea Economic Research Institute poll of the country’s 500 largest companies last month showed nearly a quarter of respondents planned to reduce new hires or not recruit at all in the first half of the year.
With their entry into the workforce indefinitely delayed, college graduates spend years filling out job forms.
Even more distressing is a sense of despair that the lack of opportunities compared with the past, and far more competition, means they will never improve their position in a country with a rigid class structure.
“I think the biggest problem is inequality,” said Park Hye-Shin, a 27-year-old student at Hankook University of Foreign Studies.
“You can’t climb the social ladder no matter how hard you try. Even if you attend the best university, every step you take in life is contest after contest.”
The stinging sense of social unfairness is epitomised by the popular so-called spoon theory—a spin-off from the English idiom of someone rich being “born with a silver spoon in their mouth.”
Befitting a highly stratified society, there are three levels in the South Korean version—wealthy “gold spoons” born to rich families, “silver spoons” who enjoy the support of comfortably-off parents, and “dirt spoons” from low-income families with no hope of social advancement.
The mounting economic and social frustrations were underlying drivers of the giant anti-corruption protests last year, when millions of South Koreans took to the streets to demand president Park Geun-Hye’s removal.
She was sacked by the country’s top court in March, triggering Tuesday’s vote, and now those in their 20s and 30s—who made up the largest slice of the demonstrators—want their votes to bring about tangible change.
“The presidential election was brought on by the people so it is more meaningful,” said I Gyeong-Eun, a 22-year-old student at Hanyang University.
“Voting is essential but it doesn’t stop there. It will only be the beginning.”
Under-30s normally have the lowest voter turnout of any South Korean age group, but Gallup Korea survey show an astonishing 93 percent saying they will “definitely vote.”
“Youths were at the core” of the anti-Park protests, said Koo Jeong-Woo, a sociology professor at Sungkyunkwan University, and had “an underlying yearning for change in society’s unjust systems.”
Frontrunner Moon Jae-In of the centre-left Democratic Party, who holds an overwhelming lead in opinion polls, has promised a “people-centred economy” and vowed to create 810,000 new jobs, mostly in the public sector, with about a third allotted to younger applicants.
His rival Ahn Cheol-Soo has promised to hand out monthly subsidies of around 500,000 won (US$440) to young employees at small- and medium-sized companies in an effort to match the wages of larger firms.
But some are sceptical that the election will provide any remedies to the underlying issues.
“The problem is that none of the candidates has laid out a clear solution to their problems,” said Hahn Kyu-Sup, a communications professor at Seoul National University.
Student I Gyeong-Eun has organised debates at her school to dissect the candidates’ pledges in an effort to determine who best serves their interests—without success.
“It seems the candidates are more focused on bringing each other down,” she said. “I get the feeling that policies on youth haven’t been discussed in depth.”
Days before the vote she had still not decided who to back.