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Korea Election May Hang on Youth as Park Seeks Women Votes

December 18, 2012

Park Geun Hye

South Korea's presidential candidate Park Geun-Hye of the ruling New Frontier Party gestures to her supporters during her election campaign in Suwon, south of Seoul, on Dec. 17, 2012. Photographer: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Shin So Yoon had wanted to spend tomorrow’s national holiday in Seoul indulging her appreciation of “Edward Scissorhands” director Tim Burton’s works. Instead, she’ll be skipping the exhibition and voting.

How many of the 29-year-old high school nutritionist’s generation join her in South Korean voting booths tomorrow may determine whether Park Geun Hye, daughter of the nation’s 1970s military dictator, or Moon Jae In, a former human-rights lawyer, becomes president. In the last election, when Park’s party won, voters in their late 20s made up the lowest share of votes.

Shin said she will vote for Moon, countering the Park vote from her mother, who at age 64 exemplifies the appreciation of some older voters for the rapid growth under Park Chung Hee four decades ago. At issue for Asia’s fourth-largest economy is how concerted an effort will be made under the incoming government to rein in the role of chaebols, the conglomerates that Park senior embraced to propel exports and development.

“The support from those above age 50 is strong but it’s not enough to guarantee a win for Park,” said Kim Ji Yoon, director of the Public Opinion Studies Center at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “Moon hasn’t been in the lead but he has shown a steady rise, especially a steep one toward the end,” she said, referring to opinion polls that closed on Dec. 12.

Voter Turnout

Shin is among the more than 60 percent of swing voters below 50 years old who will decide tomorrow’s outcome.

“Every president eventually ends up being the same and rarely does anything change fundamentally for the better,” Shin said in an interview last week, demonstrating the skepticism of many in her age group toward voting.

The winner will inherit an economy forecast by the central bank to grow 2.4 percent in 2012, the weakest since 2009. At the same time, the nation’s exchange rate has climbed 7.5 percent against the dollar this year, an advance that risks undermining export competitiveness. Stocks have gained, with the benchmark Kospi Index up 8.9 percent in the same period.

In 2007, voter turnout was 63 percent, with voters in their 50s recording the highest participation rate of all age groups. A turnout of more than 70 percent this time may give Moon, 59, a win, according to Kim. The victor takes office in February, replacing Lee Myung Bak, who has seen support slide during his term as economic growth weakened and an income-gap widened.

While Shin’s mother is pushing her to the voting station, she doesn’t share her parent’s desire to help Park, 60, become South Korea’s first woman president.

‘Very Uncomfortable’

“I don’t know why my mom supports the daughter of a dictator, which I find very uncomfortable,” Shin said. South Korea’s development coincided with a spate of violent crackdowns under Park Chung Hee, the country’s longest-serving military dictator.

Support for Park stood at 48 percent, 0.5 percentage point ahead of Moon, according to a Dec. 12 poll by the Seoul-based Realmeter and JTBC, a cable television affiliate of the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper. The survey of 2,000 respondents had a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points. South Korea by law bans public opinion surveys from being published six days ahead of election day until voting ends.

The biggest bloc of voters is in their 40s, accounting for 21.8 percent of 40.5 million registered voters, according to the National Election Commission. Another 15.5 million voters are from age 19 through their 30s, while 16.2 million are over 50.

Distant Connection

Younger voters have a more distant connection to Park Geun Hye’s background, rooted in the country’s postwar turmoil. Her father took power in a military coup in 1961 and ruled until 1979, when he was shot dead by his security chief. Park served in her father’s government for five years from the age of 22, acting as first lady after her mother was killed in a North Korean attempt to assassinate the president.

Park senior oversaw South Korea’s economic rise through the growth of automaking, steel and shipping, promoting chaebols, including Samsung Group, whose flagship unit Samsung Electronics Co. is the world’s biggest maker of smartphones and a rival and supplier to Apple Inc. (AAPL:US) Now, the top 10 chaebols account for more than half of the total market capitalization of the Korea Stock Exchange.

“Some sacrifices had to be made and Park senior took the bullet, literally, to lead the country toward progress and development,” said Han Sook Ja, the nutritionist’s mother. “Times have changed and you do have to evolve, just as Park has had to. But she does so based on reason. She doesn’t make blind promises like Moon.”


Widening income disparity -- the nation’s richest 20 percent last year earned 7.86 times more than the bottom 20 percent -- has shown the flip-side of the strength of the chaebols, prompting both candidates to pledge reining in their influence. While they dominate the nation’s exports, the 30 largest chaebols employed just 6 percent of the nation’s workforce.

Both Park and Moon have pledged stronger support for small- and medium-sized businesses to help them compete with the conglomerates. While Moon calls for chaebols’ existing and new cross-shareholdings to be banned to reduce the risk of monopolies, Park says that existing shareholdings should be left exempt to avoid a negative impact on the economy.

On North Korea, both candidates say they will unconditionally resume dialogue with Kim Jong Un’s regime. Moon said he will invite North Korean officials to his inauguration and hold summit talks with Kim by the end of next year. Park, while also willing to meet the country’s leader, is more cautious with promises of re-engagement, emphasizing the importance of national security and “dialogue based on trust.”


A former human-rights lawyer, Moon was jailed in 1975 for leading street protests against the government of Park’s father, and was then assigned to a front-line position in a special operations unit during his military service. He later served as chief of staff to President Roh Moo Hyun, who was in office from 2003 to 2008.

Tomorrow’s forecast is for crisp, partly cloudy winter weather. Shin said she’d rather be out meeting friends than waiting in line to vote.

“I don’t care for politics but I think there at least needs to be some momentum for change,” Shin said. “Park is anything but change with her father’s legacy and coming from the same ruling party as Lee Myung Bak.”

Should Park win, she’ll need to heed Shin’s skepticism, said Lee Nae Young, a political science professor at Korea University in Seoul.

“To be a successful president, Park must answer to the wants of young people, regardless of whether they’re ideologically moderate or progressive and didn’t support her,” Lee said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sangwon Yoon in Seoul at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at

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