A New Zeitgeist, A New South Korea

Ex-President Park Geun-Hye’s political party was once the dominant, de facto ruling force in South Korea. They were popular―especially in the countryside, rich districts of Seoul, and among elderly people who espouse liberal democracy against the North. The innermost coalition of Park loyalists wielded significant power, sometimes going so far as to threaten fellow party members who “betrayed” the President.

I recall my own grandmother preaching to me: “Never put yourself out there and speak against President Park. You’re just a student. It’s too early for you to formulate any political stance. I know you don’t like the pro-Park faction, but they mean well for our country.”

Yet now they are at the brink of total collapse, with their leader potentially facing a jail term of up to 45 years for a corruption scandal that revealed how she gave a Rasputin-like political confidant immense influence over the inner workings of the government. A prisoner’s dilemma has unfolded as the former President and her confidant await their verdict. Will they remain as best friends, or will one rat out the other? Even K-dramas aren’t this dramatic.

The remaining supporters of Park have called this latest judicial decision a “witch hunt,” calling candlelight vigil protesters North Korean sympathizers. But this rhetoric has already fallen out of favor with the vast majority of Koreans. With an emergency election fast approaching, people want to move past the dark times and welcome a new Korea.

Many young Koreans today refer to their country as a living hell, but shy away from political processes. We tell ourselves that our vote doesn’t make a difference. But we must refuse to enter into this trap of self-defeatism. As a Chinese saying goes, the Yangtze River’s waves push people ahead from behind. And time and time again this Platonic truth holds true: Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.

In order to guarantee that Korea will change for the better, we must carefully assess all five presidential candidates across the full spectrum. Different voters have different visions of leadership. Some desire hard-liners who can tame the establishment; others, cool-headed conservatives who can preserve socioeconomic order. But whoever gets elected on May 9, we must ensure that they channel all their energy into normalizing the broken nation.

There are subcontractors who get paid under minimum wage, working mothers who struggle in a workaholic, patriarchal society, and LGBTQ+ Koreans who still face legal discrimination. And something is seriously wrong when migrant laborers from Vietnam are exposed to abusive environments and 63 percent of senior citizens struggle below the poverty threshold.

All of these issues require our solidarity in solving, but when mainstream politicians are too busy playing their power game, marginalized voices are barely heard. Candidates cannot and should not waste precious time on constructing political frames that get us nowhere. They should instead set aside the name-dropping and smear-campaigning and focus on reconnecting with the will of the people. Our President is no more than a civil servant whose employment contract ends in five years. The era of career politicians is coming to an end, and it’s high time for top authority to maintain humility. We’ve already seen from Park’s faction how an obsession with power can end up.

A country’s zeitgeist is determined by what the majority of the population happens to believe in. The new zeitgeist in Korea is one of civic democracy, and recognizing the power of those ordinary neighbors around us. A total of 16 million Koreans have taken to the streets since October—in a country of little over 50 million. Korea’s struggle for a mature democracy sets an impressive example for the rest of the world and the role of young people.

We want to live in a new Korea where nobody will have to tell us that it’s reckless to make our stance, demand our rights, and fight for another’s.

Recently, my grandmother gave me a call. “I was wrong, sweetheart.” “We want a better Korea—for all of you.” It was a beautiful reminder that our time is coming.

Jaehyun Park ’19 is an economics concentrator in Lowell House.

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