SEOUL — The day after South Korea’s national legislative elections last April, the progressive activist Yang Sohee bluntly summarized her political goals: “Our main priority is to seize power.”

I hadn’t expected to hear such a revolutionary statement when I met Yang, 28, and her colleague Bae Kanghun, 27, to talk about their work with two groups: Vanzeon, a capacity building organization for aspiring politicians—where they first met—and VALID, a new activist collective they later co-founded to rally young people around a new progressive agenda.

We were meeting for a cup of tea in Vanzeon’s office in Hongdae, a vibrant neighborhood full of university students. It was a sunny day and the two seemed tired after the highs and lows of election week. With his wire-framed glasses and contained body language, Bae came off as a shy, academic type, and often looked to Yang, bright-eyed and bubbly, to add context and energy to his modest observations about politics.

That morning had brought the news that the country’s liberal Democratic Party had won a resounding victory over President Yoon Suk Yeol’s conservative People Power Party in the National Assembly. Together with their satellite party, the Democrats secured 175 of 300 seats, giving them a majority healthy enough to pursue a liberal agenda and block conservative bills.

There was also bad news about young people’s political engagement. Although overall voter turnout had reached record-breaking levels, those in their 20s and 30s had once again stayed home in large numbers. Their generation would also continue to be underrepresented in the new National Assembly. Only 14 of the candidates who secured seats were under the age of 40—a miniscule improvement over the outgoing legislature, which had 13. In fact, legislators’ average age increased.

It’s common to attribute the low youth turnout and representation in politics to complacency or ignorance. Young people, it’s often suggested, don’t engage because they find it boring or don’t understand why doing so would be in their interests.

Activists like Yang and Bae offer a different explanation: Young people are not absent but actively excluded from party politics by elites who benefit from the status quo. Tired of being shut out of political processes, young leaders have decided to take matters into their own hands through a series of civil society projects designed to make youth politics unignorable.

Young South Koreans say they no longer trust elected politicians to safeguard their interests—and they’re not alone. Citizens of democracies around the world have reported feeling dissatisfied with their governments for years. A staggering 74 percent of respondents in one poll said they felt their elected officials don’t care what people like them think, while 42 percent said no political party represents their views, according to a 2024 Pew Research Center study of 24 representative democracies.

That frustration is especially apparent among young people, with large majorities saying they are skeptical of their government’s ability to address major challenges, and that they feel excluded from decision-making. It makes sense they believe that. People under 30 make up 50 percent of the world’s population, but less than 2 percent of its legislators, according to the researchers Daniel Stockemer and Aksel Sundstrom.

In South Korea, the feeling of neglect has inspired a culture of resigned individualism captured in the popular phrase “gakjadosaeng” (각자도생), which Yang translated as “no one backs you up.”

“Young people think they just need to survive on their own,” she added. “They don’t have many expectations for society and government to help them.”

In particular, Yang said, young people feel a “critical threat” because of a perception the government has failed to take responsibility for several tragedies that have uniquely affected them: the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry, which killed 304 people, including 250 high school students; the Halloween crowd crush that killed 159 people in Seoul in 2022, mostly young revelers; and the flooding of a tunnel in the central city of Cheongju that left 14 dead, including a 20-year-old Marine, in July 2023.

“We have had gone through a lot of terrible experiences together, like tragic incidents and COVID-19,” Bae said, “but our generation hasn’t yet mixed them together to create a collective voice.”

Bae Kanghun and Yang Sohee, the co-founders of VALID, talk about their plans to transform South Korean politics in their Seoul office

That’s where VALID comes in. Since August 2023, the collective of young leaders has reflected on members’ experiences in the hope of creating a more coherent political agenda for South Korea’s left. Although their specific policy recommendations remain a work in progress, they have narrowed in on five key areas of focus: digital transformation, economic development beyond GDP, renewal of the social safety net, the climate crisis and a new strategy for peace and security.

Those are all areas VALID claims the Democratic Party has failed to adequately address. In particular, Bae says, the leading liberal party has failed to provide a vision for creating a “just and equal society.”

“A decade ago, voters cast their ballots for the Democratic Party because they were expecting a better future but now they’re just voting against the conservative party,” he said. “No one has any great expectations for the future of their leadership.”

VALID’s work responds to a commonly discussed issue that affects both political parties: the lack of real debates about policy. Ever since the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in 2016, politicians have focused their campaigns on attacking opponents’ characters and leveling accusations of corruption and criminality. Discussion of actual political challenges and proposed policy solutions has all but disappeared. Indeed, many people I spoke to couldn’t point to any meaningful differences in the two main parties’ political visions ahead of the April vote.

“In an election, it’s important for parties to demonstrate the will to put out policies and make promises to, for instance, give certain things to young people or benefits to the poor,” Heo Jin-jae, head researcher at Gallup Korea, said in an interview. “In this election, the two parties did not make many such policies or pledges, and what they did promise was very similar.”

Younger South Koreans, who lack the strong party loyalties of older generations, have had a hard time selecting between politicians in the absence of substantive platforms. Meanwhile, the never-ending scandals and criminal investigations of politicians have left many feeling that both parties are amoral or untrustworthy.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have attempted to appeal to young voters in the past. Yoon, whose election in 2022 was partly secured by young voters, has repeatedly promised to highlight youth policies. His government was also involved in selecting youth inclusion as a theme for this year’s Summit for Democracy, an annual convening of democracies hosted in Seoul in late March.

A banner advertises the Summit for Democracy, an annual gathering of democracies, outside its venue in Seoul’s Gangnam neighborhood. The theme of this year’s summit was “Democracy for Future Generations,” making it one of many recent international events to prominently highlight the importance of youth engagement and empowerment in recent years

“I consider young people not as the subject of policies but partners in state affairs jointly designing the nation’s future, and I have high expectations for the role all of you will play,” the president said during a meeting to evaluate his work on youth policy his first year in office, Yonhap reported. “I will create a Republic of Korea where all of you are given fair opportunities and just rewards for your efforts and achievements.”

During the recent campaign season, he further promised to expand scholarships, study abroad opportunities, tax benefits and savings programs for young people, and People Power Party interim leader Han Dong-hoon even pledged to create a government agency focused on the needs of young people. Democratic Party leaders have also courted young voters with similar promises of affordable housing for young families and students and access to loans.

However, many young people I spoke to have come to view such rhetoric with heavy skepticism.

“During the campaigns, politicians always tell us, ‘We have lots of youth policies, and we need your voice! We should be on the same team!’” Jeong Jieun, a 27-year-old researcher at Korea University’s Ilmin International Relations Institute, told me. “But after the election, they cut budgets related to youth housing and supporting youth careers. That kind of thing makes us think our participation in Korean politics is meaningless and useless.”

Housing is a particular sore point for young voters. They turned against former President Moon Jae-in in the 2022 election partly because of his administration’s failure to address a Seoul housing crisis that saw apartment prices increase by 58 percent during his term. The Democratic Party government introduced rent caps—only for it to be later revealed that high-ranking party officials earned money through the crisis by hiking up rents on properties they owned.

Yoon has also struggled to address the issue. Despite promising to create millions of new housing units through tax cuts and deregulation, his government seemed to make little progress toward that goal and was left scrambling before the April vote, making renewed ambitious promises and rushing through deregulation.

Both the People Power Party and Democratic Party also pledged to put more young people and women on the ballot. Both failed to live up to that commitment, according to Korea JoongAng Daily.

That speaks to another key issue involving party politics young activists are targeting for change: their impenetrable networks.

Park Hyemin, co-founder of the civil society group New Ways, explains how her organization recruited and trained candidates for the 2024 National Assembly elections

Unlike in many other democracies, where political parties have youth wings or training and mentorship programs to ensure their continuance, South Korea’s major political parties do not. That is partly a result of the party system’s development prior to 1987 in an authoritarian context that limited policy debates, when power was centered around specific personalities.

New leaders created new parties packed with friends and trusted contacts from their hometowns and schools. To this day, political parties remain closed networks with strong ties to geographic regions and the legacies of older leaders, making it difficult for outsiders—including young politicians—to break in.

When asked why political parties don’t cultivate young talent themselves, Yang explained that youth exclusion is a result not of complacency but greed.

Political party insiders “do not feel the need for the system to change because the current system is beneficial for sustaining their power,” she said. “It’s actually quite competitive to get a seat in the National Assembly, and a young newcomer is just another competitor.”

Yang and Bae explain that they’ve seen many young politicians previously be “consumed” by party politics—used as “puppets” during elections to demonstrate support for young people only to be dropped after the election.

“After seeing young people gradually being excluded and erased from this year’s election, after seeing how people my age keep dying and getting hurt without anyone taking proper responsibility for these tragedies, I became convinced that we can’t waste any more time waiting for someone else to help us,” Yang said during VALID’s Korean-only panel at the Summit for Democracy. “If there is no space for us, then let’s make the space ourselves.”

Vanzeon, where Bae works as director, is one of the new groups tackling the problem. Part studio space and part politics school, the organization recruits and trains aspiring politicians through a fellowship program that involves months of discussion-based classes about policy, political philosophy, campaign strategies and more in a nonpartisan, collaborative context. The program, curated by a steering committee of veteran political minds, also helps fellows network with each other and potentially useful political contacts.

The connections and ideas generated at the organization have already had an impact: VALID, Bae and Yang’s progressive movement, began when the two met at Vanzeon’s political school. The Vanzeon group will start recruiting a second cohort of fellows in May.

Another interesting agenda-setting project is named New Ways, which uses a sports agency-style system to foster and support young talent. I met one of the founders, Park Hyemin, on the top-floor cafe of a coworking space in Seongsu-dong, a trendy neighborhood in eastern Seoul. With her all-black outfit and thick-framed glasses, she looked the part of a start-up owner ready to pitch a new project. She confirmed that impression halfway through our interview when she pulled out her laptop to show me a marketing deck.

A young woman contemplates the Han River across from Seoul’s National Assembly building

Ahead of local elections in June 2022 and the April 2024 national vote, Park and her team crowdsourced a list of qualities young voters wanted to see in candidates. New Ways held a “draft” to source potential new politicians, ran workshops to train them and reintroduced them to voters on its website and social media accounts. The team went on to connect young politicians to existing parties, presenting them as realistic options for a pre-existing support base.

The strategy hinges on the potential of young voters to swing elections. Because older voters tend to have immutable loyalties, any party that successfully courts young voters could get an important edge over its opponents.

The problem for the parties is that older politicians don’t understand what young voters want or need. New Ways hopes to address the gap by independently nurturing politicians who can speak to different factions of young voters.

“All the important values in our lives are different,” Park told me. “Feminism is important to some, animal rights are important to some, and others just want to live well and eat well, or be able to buy a house and earn a lot of money.”

Veteran politicians find it difficult to target such voters “because they’re not gathered or grouped,” she added.

In the 2022 local elections, the process produced 138 candidates, 40 of whom won their elections. Last month’s results were not as encouraging: Of the 25 candidates New Ways advanced, only three were able to run for office and none won a seat. The results might appear discouraging, but Park—a former business strategist—says she’s optimistic about applying lessons learned to the next campaign season.

Without input from young leaders, Park says, South Korea will likely struggle to address major challenges and secure its future. In an ideal world, political parties themselves would be raising their own future leaders. For now, the grassroots ventures undertaken by entrepreneurial organizers will be doing that work for them.

“Who will be the leader of Korea in five years or 10 years?” Park said. “Instead of thinking ‘How can I win? How can I win?’ I think a new politics should be created based on solving problems and taking care of each other.”

Top photo: Protesters rally in Seoul to voice criticism of First Lady Kim Keon-hee, accused of corruption after she allegedly accepted a luxury Dior bag from a pastor. The scandal, which first emerged in late 2023, was a major topic of political discourse ahead of the April elections