SEOUL Dec 18 Living on $2 bowls of rice in rows
of tiny rooms, thousands of young South Koreans are voting early
ahead of Wednesday's presidential election as they cram for
exams that they hope will lead to a government job for life.
There are 30,000 residents of a drab neighbourhood of the
South Korean capital known as Exam Village, where people
preparing for tests for low-level civil service jobs have
gravitated for years.
There is a growing sense of frustration among the young in a
country where there are simply not enough jobs to go round,
especially for graduates of less prestigious universities whose
options are largely limited to the public sector.
That frustration might translate into votes for the leftist
candidate, Moon Jae-in, who has promised more welfare, better
education and taxes for the super-wealthy.
Moon is competing against Park Geun-hye from the ruling
conservatives, who has pledged a continuation of current
Opinion polls show the race is too close to call, with Park,
the 60-year-old daughter of South Korean dictator Park
Chung-hee, relying on older voters who tend to turn out in
force, while Moon's chances might depend on more fickle younger
They often can't be bothered to vote but that might be
different this time.
In Exam Village, or Goshichon in Korean, there were so many
young people who wanted to cast early ballots last week that
extra polling booths had to be brought in.
"I want to see regime change. Everything is so stuck," said
Kim Sa-myeong, 27, in his tiny room in one of the many private
dorms that house students in the neighbourhood.
In the past four decades, South Korea has transformed itself
from one of the world's poorest countries into an industrial
powerhouse where top companies like Samsung Electronics and
Hyundai Motor make telephones and cars for global markets.
Gross domestic product per capita is more than $30,000 a
year, the world's 29th highest, and South Korean television
dramas and pop stars are taking the world by storm.
But reality for many young South Koreans is a world away
from glitzy showbiz and corporate triumph.
The 27-year old Kim moved from his rural town outside Seoul
to his cubicle with a desk, chair and tiny fridge to try again
to pass the civil service exam. He has failed once already.
He borrows money from his family to get by and studies until
midnight. The drab walls of his room are plastered with lists of
English words he's trying to learn.
"Even if I become a public servant, I don't think it will be
much fun if this continues," said Kim, referring to the
conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak, whose single
mandatory five year term is coming to an end.
Kim speaks in a hushed voice, wary of disturbing fellow
students immersed in books in their rooms all around.
South Korean students consistently outperform their
counterparts in reading and maths. University enrolment rates
are 80 percent, the highest in the world, and tuition costs are
ranked the third highest among rich nations.
While graduates of top universities can aim for jobs with
Samsung or Hyundai, those from lower-ranked universities set
their sights on a state job, with 28.7 percent of graduates
wanting to get government work.
Exam Village, the real name of which is Noryangjin, is
packed with cram schools and study rooms. Students trudge along
narrow alleys, backpacks full of books slung over their
No one was willing to say they were supporting Park.
"My parents are saying that now is much more difficult than
the IMF crisis," Christine Kang, 24, told Reuters after she cast
her vote. The 1997-98 Asian financial crisis is known in South
Korea as the IMF crisis.
Kang has been living and studying in Exam Village for a year
in the hope of passing exams to become a police officer.
She said she voted for Moon and tweeted a picture of herself
carrying a sign reading "12.19 Vote!" to encourage her friends.
Moon came to the neighbourhood to campaign and stood with
students at a street stall to eat one of their staple $2 rice
meals from a plastic container. He promised job quotas for young
people and an increase in the number of civil service job
But he's got his work cut out, if he wins.
The percentage of people between 15 and 29 who are not in
employment, education or training stood at 36.8 percent, the
highest level among OECD countries in 2008, according to Korea
Of a total of about 300,000 people taking the civil service
exams, only about 10,000 will pass.
"No matter who becomes president, the job problem isn't
going to be solved quickly," said Oh Eun-a, a 25 year-old woman
also hoping to pass the police exam. "The rich get richer and
the poor get poorer and it's is getting worse."
"Becoming a public servant is the only dream that the
have-nots can pursue," Oh said.