A youth revolt is under way in South Korea

President Moon and his party should see the results of the Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections as a warning sign.

Moon South Korea AP Photo
President Moon and his party are currently facing multiple challenges, including the country's worst unemployment crisis since 1997(AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, Pool)

Earlier this month, young South Koreans dealt a crushing blow to President Moon Jae-in and his ruling Democratic Party (DP) by overwhelmingly voting for candidates from the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) in Seoul and Busan’s mayoral by-elections.

Oh Se-hoon, the PPP candidate, won the race in Seoul, the capital city of 10 million people, with an 18 percent margin over his DP rival. Meanwhile, in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, Park Heong-joon, another candidate affiliated with the opposition party, beat his DP rival by an even larger margin of 28 percent.

According to an exit poll jointly released by South Korea’s three leading broadcasters – KBS, MC and SBS – more than half of the voters in their 20s and 30s in both cities voted for PPP candidates, ensuring the governing party’s defeat.

However, this “youth revolt” did not stem from any increase in support for the conservative PPP candidates and policies. Indeed, a noted analyst even made the sarcastic comment that if the PPP ran “a wooden stick” instead of Oh Se-hoon in the Seoul by-election, it would win by a higher margin.

The results of the two by-elections were nothing but a backlash from young South Koreans against the DP government which has repeatedly failed them in the past four years. In an interview conducted by the South Korean daily Kyunghyang Shinmun in the aftermath of the by-elections, young voters from the capital said they turned their back on the DP despite voting for the party in the 2020 general election because they felt “betrayed” by President Moon and the elites around him. One voter added that if things remain the way they are, he will not vote for the DP candidate in the presidential election scheduled for March 2022.

The first issue that turned public opinion against Moon and his government was the catastrophic housing crisis in the Seoul metropolitan area. Apartment prices in Seoul have soared by 58 percent during Moon’s presidency, according to the government-run Korea Real Estate Board. Rents in the city have also shot up, leaving millions of people, especially young people in their 20s and 30s who have extremely limited savings, struggling to make ends meet.

To ease the city’s housing crisis, the government introduced a cap on rent increases, but this move backfired when it was revealed that many high-ranking DP officials increased the rents for the apartments they own in Seoul before the rent-control bill came into effect.

Kim Sang-jo, President Moon’s policy chief in charge of the country’s economic and social policies, including real estate market measures, for example, was sacked for imposing a 14 percent rent increase on his apartment just two days before the passing of a new law that set a 5 percent cap on rent increases. The ruling party lawmaker Park Ju-min, who drafted the rent-control bills, was also found to have imposed rent hikes on his apartment before the laws’ passage.

Many other government officials were also found to have benefitted from the crisis through rent hikes and land speculation. In March this year, for example, it has been revealed that at least 20 employees of the Korea Land and Housing Corporation – the government agency in charge of building new towns and housing – are under investigation for using privileged information to cash in on government housing development programmes.

Another factor that turned young South Koreans against the governing party was the hypocrisy the Moon administration and high-ranking DP officials demonstrated on issues relating to social justice and equality.

Indeed, several Blue House officials and elected DP officials ignored the concepts of “fairness” and “justice”, that supposedly form the core of President Moon’s governing philosophy, in their conduct in the past two years, and Moon and his party did little to sanction them.

The mayoral by-elections in Busan and Seoul, in fact, took place only because the DP-affiliated mayors of both cities found themselves at the centre of sexual abuse scandals. Former Seoul mayor, Park Won-Soon, reportedly died by suicide last July after being accused of sexual harassment by his secretary. Former Busan mayor, Oh Keo-don, meanwhile, resigned in April 2020 after admitting to sexual misconduct.

Yet, members and supporters of the governing party that both Park and Oh were members of not only attempted to play down the scandals, but also embarked on a harassment campaign against Park’s victim. Moreover, the Democratic Party rewrote a section of its own charter, which prohibited the party from nominating candidates in elections that were made necessary because of faults of the party’s members, to be able to participate in Busan and Seoul’s mayoral races.

The government and the governing party’s hypocrisy on social justice issues had first become apparent to South Koreans when former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and his wife were found to have falsified their daughter’s academic achievements to ensure her admission into a prestigious university. Due to this scandal, among many other accusations of corruption and misconduct, Cho Kuk resigned in October 2019, after just 35 days in his role as justice minister.

The Cho Kuk scandal quickly led to social justice and fairness becoming the hottest political issue in South Korea, especially amid Moon’s controversial all-out push for prosecution reform led by then-Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, Cho’s successor. Choo herself was later dismissed from the role, after unlawfully suspending Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol in mid-December last year.

Still, President Moon and his party openly supported both Cho and Choo as champions of prosecution reform, ignoring the public’s widespread concerns about the government’s hypocritical attitude towards social justice issues.

Beyond these scandals, Moon and his party are facing many other challenges, including the country’s worst unemployment crisis since 1997. With less than 4 percent of the population vaccinated and a fourth COVID-10 wave looming on the horizon, as well as an unresolved housing crisis crippling the capital, most young people in the country have little hope for the future.

If President Moon and his party fail to address the growing unemployment and housing crises, both disproportionately affecting young people, and convince the public that they are ready and willing to make achieving social justice and fairness a genuine priority, they will undoubtedly face another “youth revolt” in next year’s presidential election.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.