Woo’s attitude is similar to that of many university students these days. They are not investing interest in politics. According to a survey conducted by the job portal site CareerNet, more than 40 percent of university students say that they do not care about politics.
Moreover, in the 18th presidential election, only 65.8 percent of students in their 20s voted, according to data from the Republic of Korean National Election Commission (NEC). This number might not seem so low, but it was the lowest turnout among all age groups, and 10 percent lower than the total percentage of the population voting in the election: 75.8 percent. The UOS Times focuses on why students are not interested in politics, and we consider what might encourage them to be more engaged.
As a Watcher in Politics
Looking into how university students behave towards politics in reality, The UOS Times conducted a survey of 151 students. Among respondents, 36 percent indicated that they did not consider politics to be significant. Those who showed disinterest responded that they did not know what politics is, that they regarded themselves as a group which were less related with it, and that they were too busy to keep an eye on how it works. Fifty-two percent of students said that they did not take part at all.
Students cite a variety of reasons for the reluctance to participate in politics. Forty percent of respondents said that they did not know how to get involved, and 22.6 percent complained that nothing would change even if they participated. An anonymous student even worried that revealing one’s political opinion would affect his employment prospects or make other people biased against him.
How have university students, who were once the main agents of political activism, moved into the periphery of politics? The student movements in Korea were originally based on the liberation movements during the Japanese colonial era. In those times, not only university students and professors, so-called intellectuals, but also common people took action to protest against Japanese imperialism. As generations went by, the movements grew into the democratic ones in 1980’s. Just a few decades ago, university students led the surge of Korean democracy, using their voice to weed out corruption in society. The 1980s were especially a blossoming time for student movements: the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Movement and the June Democracy Movement. However, since those remarkable events passed, the engine of the student movements has slowly failed.
The most significant reason why university students do not take part in politics is the social atmosphere. Following the shock of the IMF crisis, the circumstances of universities changed, and university students have had to focus on their employment and tuition as never before. By comparing youth unemployment figures between 1997 and 1998, we could detect this change in the university atmosphere. In 1998, the youth unemployment figure was 12.2 percent. This was more than twice that of one year before, 5.7 percent. Even though the cold wind of the IMF crisis, as it is called, had passed, this figure did not fall below seven percent. In February of 2015, the figure rose again to 11.1 percent, the highest rate since 1999.
To survive in this society, students have to become ideal models, examples of what it takes to fit into the world. A person needs to graduate from university with high grades, internships and a variety of co-curricular records ? evidence of engagement and activity apart from class. Every graduate wants a job, but it becomes more difficult to find a job. Besides, even after landing a job, there are financial pressures: one has to accumulate about 100 million won for marriage.
Reflecting this atmosphere, there is a word, sam-po saedae ? a generation who gives up three important things in life: dating, marriage, and children. Students use this expression jokingly, but it shows that they think of themselves as losers in society. As time has passed, the list of things to abandon has grown so that now, the young usually say that there are four other categories to abandon: owning a house, human relations, dreams, and hope. Universities are no longer an agora for a better society. Arguments only lead to action in study groups for employment, and the young gather at job fairs, not at voting booths.
▲ Posters in Korea University
Efforts toward Participation
Still 48 percent of respondents say they try to participate in politics. They do so through a variety of ways, both online and offline: voting, fundraising, petitions, expressing their ideals on political websites, and participating in protests. They show interest in international relations, welfare, legal issues, and understanding current events. Their motives are also diverse, but most think that joining politics will make their opinions valuable and will become another engine to change society. However, most of these students also worry that their efforts are fruitless, or that they do not see the results.
Recently, some movements have emerged from efforts by university students to change society. For example, on December 10, 2013, Hyun-woo Joo, a student at Korea University, put up a poster on a bulletin board at his school with the title “How have you been?.” Through the poster, he tried to criticize the chronic social inequality in Korean society that was revealed during a strike by the Korea Railroad Workers’ Union.
In an interview with the Hankyoreh, Joo explained his motives: “Our generation accepts competition naturally, but we do not have time to speak about our own political beliefs or to seek inclusion within the majority. We hide our rage with stuffiness, even if we feel it. (…) I just think that we say ‘How have you been?,’ and we answer ‘I am okay,’ as a cliche, but we do not consider whether we are really well. To avoid being unpleasant, it seems that we wear masks and say, ‘How are you?’ to conceal our true situation.”
Joo’s action became a trigger for other students beyond the university, and they also joined the movement. Many celebrities backed their actions, and TV programs followed the events, paying homage along the way. Recognizing what was happening, many politicians seemed to react to what university students said and pledged. Nonetheless, no specific policies were formed.
How to Become a Political Doer
Students are becoming more and more indifferent to politics. However, there is a saying: “He who would eat the fruit must climb the tree.” If somebody ─ possibly including you ─ has a complaint about this hard-hearted society, he/she needs to move and show that he/she is dissatisfied.
Regarding his atmosphere of political apathy, Byung-ha Lee, a UOS professor in International Relations, said, “For the last 20 years, university students have not achieved anything by participating in politics. That is why they have disinterest towards it. However, lower participation is also a choice of the young. If they want to demand something from society, they need to move.”
Lee continued to share his thoughts. Lee said that two decades ago, university students organized groups and participated in student movements to fight against absurd politics and the illogic of society. In those times, university students thought of themselves as political and intellectual leaders. However, nowadays, students have settled for the present as bystanders who do not speak aloud, but merely gripe about the world and their surroundings.
He criticized the young for “behaving like mobile applications.” They just compete in a fixed algorithm and complain about their situation, not sharing their viewpoints with others or acting in practical ways. They have to try to break the existing state of politics and gather to make their voices heard through the political system.
As for the idea that Korean university students are no longer active doers in politics, there is a good example that we may need to take toward more positive and active participation. In the Netherlands, there is a local party at Delft called Studenten Techniek In Politiek (STIP, or in English, Technology Students In Politics) which was founded in 1993 by members of Technische Universiteit Delft (Delft University of Technology). STIP is a special party since it is run entirely by university students. They are working actively of, by, and for the students. Their main objective ? an impressive one ? was originally to solve the lack of accommodation for students who are studying in Delft. They proposed a practical, specific plan to the city for building new dormitories. For more than 20 years, they have proposed other remarkable ideas in many fields for the community and the students.
The overall attitude of students towards politics may not be strong at the moment, but there is also a person who tries to show how to take action as a student at the UOS. He is Jin-woong Jang (School of Business, ’08). He used to be a member of the New Progressive Party for several years from 2009, but he is now a member of the Saenuri Party. While volunteering for an educational program run by Dongdaemoon-gu Resident Solidarity, he met some members of the New Progressive Party and joined them in 2009. As a party member, he developed a group for his electoral district, in Dongdaemoon-gu. He continued to volunteer for educational programs with members of other parties to reduce unequal opportunity in society. He emphasized that no matter what the young people thought about politics, it remained a significant element in our lives, and he argued that students needed to open their minds towards it. He insisted that participation in it had enormous potential because the influence of a policy was dramatic; it could change the quality of our lives. He added that only when we became an influential group, we could be helpful in leading society towards a better direction.
Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Maybe, nowadays, university students tend to ignore their own silence and reject all responsibility for the circumstances they face. They are afraid to deviate from their position, but they also blame the world for not giving them what they want. What Jang and Lee both propose is that change in society starts with small expressions. From there, we can draw a little attention, and this will grow into a wave for reforming society, like a butterfly effect. Now, university students should realize that they are the future political leaders of Korea and that they have to raise their voices to form a mature Korean society.