Young voter anger over housing, jobs threatens Moon’s legacy in South Korea

  • Young voters fume over home prices, poor job prospects
  • Downturn falls hard on the most highly educated generation in history
  • Liberal contenders for election compete to reclaim young voters

SEOUL, June 10 (Reuters) - Outside class hours, Kim Kyung-wook delivers meals on foot to apartment blocks near his university in eastern Seoul, while constantly checking his phone to trade stocks, cryptocurrency and used Nike sneakers.

That probably won't help him land a well-paid job when he graduates later this year, but Kim says such side hustles are a "smarter thing to do" in the face of increasingly bleak job opportunities and an expanding income gap under President Moon Jae-In.

Kim is one face of a lost generation that many see emerging as the key voting bloc that could swing next year’s presidential election. Already, he and voters like him helped the main opposition party triumph in April by-elections for mayor of Seoul.

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"It's like the government is locking out everyone who hasn't landed on a regular job yet or doesn't own a property. Voting for the other guys was the least I could do to show them things aren't working out," Kim said.

The Presidential Blue House declined to comment.

With one year left in his single five-year term, Moon's promise for a more just, compassionate and equitable society rings hollow to many. But the pandemic-induced downturn has fallen especially hard on those in their 20s and 30s.

South Korea now has the highest proportion of 25-34 year olds with tertiary degrees among OECD countries.

Despite being the most highly educated generation in the country's history, nearly one in every four Koreans in the 15-29 age group was effectively jobless as of May, far higher than the 13.5% for the rest of the working population.


For Lee Jung, a 27-year-old liberal arts major, news reports that employees of a state housing developer used insider information to benefit from runaway home prices in March was the last straw.

"It's hard enough to watch crazy apartment prices. Cashing in on privileged information like that, after cutting home supplies and mortgages, how dare they, it's disgusting," said Lee, who is saving to buy a studio on the outskirts of Seoul.

Apartment prices in Seoul have soared about 60% since Moon took office in 2017, despite about two dozen rounds of housing market curbs.

Lee said various tax penalties to discourage speculative buying and tightened rules on knock-and-rebuild developments ended up hurting renters.

A 35% increase in minimum wages since 2017 was another widely discussed policy, which critics argue led to a drop in low-paying jobs across retailers and the service sector.

"It's really difficult to look into the future when you can't rely on your parent's money and everything you make goes to rent and food, its only going up," said Lee, who says he spends about half of what he makes on rent and plans to vote for the opposition.

Worsening housing affordability has eroded Moon's approval rating, now hovering around 38% from a high of 71% in May last year, according to polling by Gallup Korea, as more young Koreans shift their support to the conservative opposition.

As elections approach, leading liberal contenders to succeed Moon are competing to regain the confidence of voters in their 20s and 30s, who make up about one third of the voting bloc.

Lee Jae-myung, the governor of Gyeonggi province who leads opinion polls, in May proposed giving 10 million won ($8,959) of "travel the world" vouchers to high school graduates who choose not to go to college.

Chung Se-kyun and Lee Nak-yon, both former prime ministers under Moon, also pledged to offer seed money for investment or rent subsidies to help young people starting out in life.

Figures among the main opposition People Power Party say such moves are insufficient to tackle the needs of younger voters.

"These are like giving out Advil when there is a cancer growing in your body," said Lee Jun-seok, a 36-year old Harvard-educated computer expert, who is the leading contender for the opposition's leadership contest this Friday.

He and other PPP members say they want to elect more officials from younger generations to better reflect views from younger generations, and support tech start-ups.

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Reporting by Cynthia Kim; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Lincoln Feast.

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