SEOUL — Jung Seong-hoon, 22, shared the frustrations of young South Koreans facing a bleak future: Jobs are scarce, rents are high and debts are mounting. So last month he ran for a seat on his local council and won.
Mr Jung exemplifies the young blood entering South Korean politics en masse after lawmakers lowered the minimum age for political office this year from 25 to 18. That led to a record number of people under 40 running in the local elections in June – 416 candidates, up from 238 in 2018. Of the 4,131 people who won their race, 11 were under the age of 24, including the youngest election winner in the United States. history of the country, a 19-year-old.
But even before their tenure began on Friday, they encountered problems as old as politics itself. They say they are faced with a political ecosystem dominated by out-of-contact politicians in their 50s and 60s, a prohibitively high fundraising bar, and an opaque network of party officials whose favor they must win to stand a chance. .
They have to navigate strict cultural barriers (one’s social status is largely determined by one’s age) and deal with an older electorate that sometimes dismisses them as ‘inexperienced’ and ‘gullible’, some complain.
“There is an expectation that young people will contribute to making the world a better place, but many people are concerned about our young age,” said Lee Ja-hyung, 23, who was elected to the meeting in Gyeonggi Province, in the United States. near Seoul. “They are concerned that our judgment skills are not fully developed and that we may be influenced too easily by those around us.”
That makes it more difficult for young contenders to get nominations from a major political party, which often requires them to personally meet party officials. In the conservative People Power Party, the chairmen of the local party council have the power to nominate a candidate. In the Liberal Democratic Party, candidates must not only be nominated, but also win in primaries to run for office.
“There was an established idea that politics is for adults, according to an established Confucian culture,” said Noh Woong-rae, 64, a member of the National Assembly.
The age limit for national political candidates is 25 years in many Asian countries, including Japan, India, the Philippines and Thailand. In Hong Kong and Singapore, the limit is 21 and in Taiwan 23. In the United States, a person must be 30 or older to be a senator and 25 or older to be a representative. Only a few teens have been elected to the U.S. state legislature or run for seats on city councilors. A handful of countries, including Germany, allow 18-year-olds to run for national legislative chamber.
In South Korea, Mr. Noh was one of the legislators who campaigned to lower the minimum age for candidates, arguing that the age for candidacy should be the same as the voting age, which has been 20 since 1960. Others wanted to abolish age limits altogether.
The move to change the law was linked to the student-led Democratic protests of 1987. Activists said they wanted to dispel the idea that political participation should be reserved for the elite, an idea that dates back to the military dictatorship of Park Chung- hey.
The effort succeeded in stages: the voting age was lowered to 19 in 2005. In 2019, the National Assembly approved lowering it again to 18. This year, lawmakers lowered the age limit to run for office.
“It’s nice to have some experience or knowledge, but I don’t think politics requires a huge level of that per se,” said Park Joo-min, 48, another councilor.
Despite the change, Mr. Jung, the 22-year-old elected to Yangsan’s town council in South Gyeongsang province, said speaking with a party official to try to be nominated “felt like hitting my head against the wall.” (He campaigned on a pledge to help bolster the city’s transportation infrastructure.)
Fundraising is also particularly challenging, with some candidates saying they would need to come up with about 20 million South Korean won (about $15,400) to run successful campaigns.
Lee Yechan, 22, who was elected a member of the Yeongdeungpo-gu district assembly in Seoul, said that when it came to campaign financing: “I used up all the savings I had collected from an internship I did for a year and from teaching students the work part. I even took out a loan – the interest is high.”
Drawn to politics by a mix of idealism and belief that they could help steer the country in a better direction, some face compromises.
On the eve of taking office, Mr. Jung: “While I feel responsible for tackling young people’s problems, I don’t intend to focus on them. I think raising the issues of young people just because I’m young provokes animosity.”
For Cheon Seung-ah, 19, the youngest elected politician, winning had a prize. She was nominated by her local party council chairperson, Kim Hyun-ah, 52, in an effort to get more young women involved in the People Power Party. (Many members had been accused of amplifying anti-feminist slogans.)
In an interview, Mrs. Cheon described hopes to expand enrichment programs for the city’s children and improve the municipal transportation system. After she won, members of her own party council, including some of the women who had competed for a nomination for her seat, launched an attack. According to a complaint signed by six council members, she had claimed on her resume a nonexistent title on the council’s youth committee.
The complaint was accepted by the Seoul Public Prosecutor’s Office in the Central District.
Prosecutors are also investigating dozens of other winners of the June election. Attacks are common against candidates whose nomination by a local party council chairman played a major role in their election victory, such as Ms Cheon. It is easy to challenge their legitimacy because their victory is seen as less democratic. Few of those attacks have been formally accepted as legal complaints.
Ms. Cheon has denied the claim, saying, “The hardest thing was the toll the attacks took on my mental health.”
Ms. Kim has also refuted the suggestion that there was something inappropriate about her protégé’s title. Under the party’s rules, Ms Kim said, she had the sole privilege of appointing people to the council and giving them titles. “I am under no obligation to ask for permission from or notify members of the council,” she said.
One of Ms Cheon’s challengers, Lee Kang-hwan, who was the vice chairman of the council, said in an interview that he had quit when he heard she was the nominee. He also said he had hoped she would resign.
On Friday, Mrs. Cheon completed her tenure as the youngest city councilor in Goyang. On Monday, prosecutors assigned a police department to investigate her case.