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by Alex Jong Lee

Korean Leaders Surprise With Call to Formally End War

(IPS) SEOUL -- One month after the historic South-North Korean summit and less than a month before presidential elections in South Korea, students, activists, and academics are lamenting a trend towards conservatism and political apathy among the youth.

According to a recent poll conducted by seven of the top universities in S.Korea, 40 percent of college students identify as politically "conservative" and are likely to vote for a conservative presidential candidate in the upcoming election.

In contrast, students in the past, particularly those from the so-called 386 generation,' led the charge during the nation's democratization movement against repressive military regimes in the 1980s.

Most students who spoke with IPS agreed that young Koreans today were, indeed, more conservative than they were in the past. But for some, the division between "conservative" and "liberal" is less clearly defined these days.

"You may think it is a contradiction that many students are conservative, even though we were raised in a liberal environment," said Kang Seung-Kyun, a Seoul National University (SNU) student. "However, we have a double-faced political view, which is why we can alternatively choose to be liberal or conservative depending on the situation. For this reason, we have no exact or strong opinion about political things."

Chung Yong Wook, a professor at SNU said one reason why young Koreans lack flexibility in their political thinking is because of North Korea and its real and perceived "threat" (military, in the case of another Korean war, and economically, in the case of reunification). Therefore, last month's Inter-Korea Summit was a very positive step towards normalising relations and communication between the two Koreas, he said.

According to Chung, every subsequent government since that of South Korea's first president, Syngman Rhee, has exerted ever greater power over society. This has led to a growing generation gap between the older generation, many of whom were part of Korea's democratic movements in the 1980s, and the current younger generation. At the same time, however, "young blood" still has no opportunities to get involved with the government, he says, which is still controlled by very established, older politicians.

"The youth have no money, so they feel economically isolated," he said. "And even if they want to do something like become a politician and speak about their issues, the old generation is so strong, young people become desperate and have no choice but to give up,' Chung told IPS during an interview.

Academics like Hyo-Je Cho, a professor at Sung Kong Hoe University, acknowledge that Korea's youth have become more conservative but are careful to distinguish what is occurring in Korea from "true" conservatism.

The majority of self-identified young "conservatives" in Korea, Cho says, are not particularly loyal to a genuine conservative ethos -- people he terms "creedal conservatives" -- but rather choose the "conservative" label out of temperament, ignorance, or selfish free market principles. At the same time, he argues that since they are not highly motivated by ideology, they can easily be swayed toward more progressive politics, but only given the right circumstances.

Meanwhile, older, "hardcore" conservatives would view student apathy in Korea as a positive trend, according to Prof. Chang Nam Kim, who also teaches at the same university. Political disinterest among the youth would validate their vision of an ultra-capitalistic Korea, one that values obedience and hard work over equality and social justice, he added.

According to him, the concept of conservatism in Korea is also different from what it means in Western society.

"Many Koreans (including ordinary conservative people) support the sunshine policy and the peace program," he said. "But in the political context, many of them support the Hannara Party (Grand National Party) in spite of their extreme right position. Yes, it is contradiction, but contradiction is Korea itself."

Though everyone who spoke with IPS believed there were multiple reasons for the trend in S. Korea, including capitalism and Korea's history and educational system, some activists contend that Korean parents bear much of the responsibility.

Lee Sun Ju, a coordinator at the Center for Human Rights and Peace, argues that most young Koreans, especially those from lower and middle-class backgrounds, lack class-consciousness because their parents indoctrinate them to "survive" in a capitalist society instead of challenging it. As a result, while the lower and middle classes represent nearly 80 percent of Korea's population, nearly all of them still focus on becoming part of the richest 20 percent, she said.

"They don't care about what Lee Myung-bak (presidential front-runner for the conservative Hannara party) thinks --but they envy his lifestyle," she said. "That's because of the way their parents raise them.'

The Hannara Party favors maintaining strong ties with the United States and Japan and prefers maintaining a distance from Pyongyang -- attributes that make it a frequent target of North Korea's state-controlled media.

Most people agree that the "passive" tendencies of Koreans are a result of authoritarian rule throughout Korean history, but particularly under Park Chung Hee.

"The military dictatorship played an important role in systematically making young Koreans' standards really high today," said Choi Hyun Joong, a student at Hanyang University. "They only made people think that once we live better now, everything will be fine without thinking what the consequences would be," he said. "But I think it's kind of a myth since Korean people today can actually have more opportunities compared to other countries. Their goal is like a goal, which cannot be met. For example, even if they get a good job, they cannot be satisfied."

As a possible solution, Korean students need to become more independent from their families, and the government must take responsibility in making this possible, financially, he suggests. Citing Europe as a model, he argues education should also be free in Korea so students can live alone and identify themselves as individuals, independent from their families. Today's Koreans have freedom as individuals, but they're chastized by society if they show any individuality, he says.

Cho agrees that while external factors like Korea's history of military rule, and strong U.S. influence, contribute to the trend in political apathy and conservatism, the current left-movement in Korea itself is a significant factor.

"I would like to say this to my fellow Koreans on the left," he said. "We must criticize, we must fight against American hegemony, of course, there's no doubt about that. But on the other hand, we have to exert our own independent agency, free thinking. We are not kind of passive agents moulded by, dictated by, determined by external forces like America."

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Albion Monitor   November 23, 2007   (

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