December 2, 2023

Seoul – 22-year-old Jung Seong-hoon shared the frustrations of young South Koreans looking to a bleak future: jobs are scarce, rents are high, debts are mounting. So last month, he ran for office in his city’s local legislature and won.

Mr. Jung embodies the young blood that entered politics in South Korea in droves after lawmakers this year lowered the minimum age for political positions to 18 from 25. This led to a record number of people under the age of 40 running in local elections in June – 416 candidates, up from 238 in 2018. Of the 4,131 people who won their races, 11 under-24s, including the youngest election winner in the country’s history, were 19 years old.

But even before their terms began on Friday, they faced problems as old as politics itself. They say they face a political ecosystem dominated by politicians in their fifties and sixties who are out of touch with reality, a major impediment to fundraising and an opaque network of party officials who must stick to their interests to have a chance.

They must traverse strict cultural barriers (one’s social standing is largely determined by age) and treat older voters who sometimes dismiss them as “inexperienced” and “naive,” as some complain.

“There is an expectation that young people will contribute to the betterment of the world, but many people are raising concerns about our young age,” said Lee Ja-hyeong, 23, who was elected to the assembly in Gyeonggi Province, near Seoul. “They worry that our sense of judgment is not fully developed and we may be easily influenced by the people around us.”

This makes it difficult for young people desiring to secure the nomination of a major political party, which often requires them to be personally acquainted with party officials. In the conservative People’s Power Party, the heads of party local councils have the power to nominate a candidate. In the Liberal Democratic Party, candidates must not only be nominated, but also win primaries to run for office.

“There has been a consistent idea that politics is for adults, according to an established Confucian culture,” said Noh Wong Ray, 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 years or older to be a senator and 25 or older to be a representative. Only a few teens were elected to US state legislatures or ran for seats on city councils. A handful of countries, including Germany, allow 18-year-olds to run for a national legislature.

In South Korea, Mr. Noh was among lawmakers who campaigned to lower the minimum age for candidates, arguing that the running age should match the voting age, which has been 20 since 1960. Others wanted age limits to be removed altogether.

The law-change movement was linked to student-led democratic protests in 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-hee.

The efforts succeeded in stages: the voting age was lowered to 19 in 2005. In 2019, the National Assembly agreed to lower it again to 18, and then this year, lawmakers lowered the minimum age to run for office.

“It’s good to have some experience or knowledge, but I don’t think politics necessarily requires a huge level of it,” said Park Joo Min, 48, another council member.

Despite the change, Mr. Jeong, a 22-year-old elected to Yangsan City Council in South Gyeongsang Province, said speaking to a party official in an effort to secure a nomination “felt like I’d banged my head against a wall.” (He campaigned on a promise to help boost the city’s transportation infrastructure.)

Fundraising is also a major challenge, with some candidates saying they have to provide around 20 million South Korean won (about $15,400) to run successful campaigns.

Lee Yishan, 22, was elected to the Yongdeungpo-gu District Council in Seoul, He said that when it came to campaign finance, “I used up all the savings I made from a year’s internship and part-time work teaching students. I even took out a loan – interest rates are high.”

Drawn into politics by a mixture of idealism and the conviction that they can help steer the country in a better direction, some find themselves faced with trade-offs.

On the eve of taking office, Mr. Jung said, “Although I feel a responsibility to address youth issues, I do not intend to focus on them. I believe that raising youth issues just because I am a youth will invite hostility.”

For Chun Seung-ah, 19, the youngest politician elected, the victory came at a price. She was nominated by the head of the local party council, Kim Hyun Ah, 52, amid a campaign to get more young women into the People’s Power Party. (Several members have been accused of inflating anti-feminist slogans.)

In an interview, Ms. Chun described hopes for expanding enrichment programs for city children and improving the local transportation system. Then, after she won, her party council members, including some of the women who were vying for her seat nomination, launched an attack. According to a complaint signed by six council members, she claimed in her autobiography that the title was not on the council’s youth committee.

The complaint was accepted by the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office.

Prosecutors are also investigating dozens of other winners in the June elections. Attacks are common against candidates whose nomination by a party mayor played a large role in their electoral victory, such as Ms Chun. It is easy to challenge their legitimacy because their victory is considered less democratic. But few of these attacks have been officially accepted as legal complaints.

Ms Chun denied the claim, saying: “The hardest part was the loss to my mental health from the attacks.”

Ms. Kim also dismissed the suggestion that there was anything undesirable about her stepson’s title. Kim said that under party rules, she had the only right to appoint people to the council and give them titles. “I have no obligation to seek permission from or notify council members,” she said.

One of Cheon’s rivals, Lee Kang-hwan, who was the vice chairman of the council, said in an interview that he resigned after learning that she was the candidate. He also said he had hoped she would resign.

On Friday, Ms. Chun began her term as the youngest female city councilor in Goyang. As of Monday, prosecutors have assigned a police department to investigate her case.

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