South Korea’s youth is angry and disillusioned

The Itaewon Halloween celebrations disaster that occurred in South Korea October 30th, 2022, has been one of the biggest tragedies in the country in nearly a decade.

More than one hundred and fifty lives were taken by a terrible stampede in this popular nightlife neighborhood, turning a joyous moment of social gathering, the first after the covid restrictions, into a terrible misfortune. 

As soon as the celebrations started, a multitude of people gathered in the district, raising the first concerns about a situation that in a matter of hours would have plummeted into chaos. As the hours went by, many called the police, suggesting controlling the area. Later that night, in the general confusion, people started falling down while the pressing crowds on both ends made it impossible to get out of the overflowed street. When the police patrols finally arrived, the worst had already happened. 

From the very first moment, the public expressed its discontent towards the lack of intervention from the authorities, which mobilized too little forces too late. The national police chief Yoon Hee Keun himself recognized that they had been notified about the situation and failed to act effectively. Consequently, the law enforcement took responsibility for the tragedy and admitted guilt, and publicly offered its apologies along with the President, Yoon Suk-yeol. 

Nevertheless, these actions have not been enough to appease the grieving population, that has been mobilizing ever since to express its disappointment in the treatment the government has reserved to its youth. Seven wakes were organized all over the city to mourn the premature loss of the victims, and captivated a great number of citizens, to the point that the biggest one, near the City Hall, blocked off two lanes of a major road. Many held signs encouraging the president to step down as an “expression of condolence”. 

Actually, the protests have been a strong catalyst of a political dissatisfaction that for long has been lingering over Korean politics. The president, Yoon Suk-yeol, was elected in March by a very small margin (less than 1%) and has ever since been increasingly unpopular. Its politics, even though they opened great perspectives for the foreign policies, have been deemed to be undetermined internally. According to the data gathered by Morning Consult Political Intelligence on leader approval, 75% of the people disapprove of his political actions. His setback is due to several internal challenges that the country has been facing under his government, such as high inflation and high energy prices. 

This is not the first time in recent Korean politics that the youth feel dissatisfied. Formerly, under President Moon's government, concerns had been raised from rent spikes and speculation. The discontent with how the government was handling the situation led in 2021 to a protest vote for the PPP (People Power Party) which caused, for instance, the election of Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon. And it was in fact the youth who played a key role in the March 2022 election, as young electors became swing voters pivotal for victory. It is however important to note that according to the polls, many of the young found both candidates unconvincing, and expressed high disappointment when it came to social mobility and job opportunities. 

The protesters are trying to draw attention to a worrying tendency in Korean politics and its disinterest towards its youth, an approach of which this event would be only the most tragic example. Despite the youthful image the country has been projecting abroad, widely based on its K-pop culture and its idols, the South Korean youth has a very different perception, as they sense the politics as distant from their needs and are growing to be more and more disenchanted about the opportunities their country has to offer for their future.  

Data from the Youth Well Being index from 2017 show that, in fact, South Korea ranked lower than other countries on indicators of safety and security, especially when it came to youth interpersonal violence. Nevertheless, they also showed that there was a high misperception of some opportunities, such as the ones of opportunities for the future. For example, only 25% of the surveyed believed that they would get better life opportunities than their parents. 

The more recent 2022 Human Rights Watch report also alerts against the fact that, in spite of being considered a consolidated democracy, South Korea is still very problematic when it comes to issues such as the gender pay gap and issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, hence fueling a climate of overall miscontent among the young. 

Clearly, the protests that spurred from the anger of witnessing the dreadful and avoidable loss of life of the victims of Itaewon have turned into something more. They have given a voice to the angry and disillusioned youth of the country, which has constantly been feeling ignored by politics, and has not found in the new government any form of validation of its worries. This should surely call for reflection on their role in politics and be a wake-up call for the government, that cannot keep ignoring the needs of this key actor that is now striving to be heard.

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