One of the best things about teaching in a university in Korea was getting to know the students and learning to see the world through their eyes. My first university teaching experience was from 1987 to 1993; my second was from 2008 to 2014. These experiences gave me insight into the formative years of the two generations that have been in the news recently: the “386 Generation” and the “2030 Generation.”
The 386 Generation refers to people who were born in the 1960s and went to university in the 1980s. It takes its name from the Intel 80386 processor that was common in PCs at the time. The generation led the democracy movement that brought an end to military dictatorship in 1987. It is now moving through its 50s and looking toward retirement.
The 2030 Generation describes people in their 20s and 30s that came of age in the first decades of this century. The Korea they grew into was far wealthier and more democratic than the Korea the 386 Generation had to deal with. Instead of marching in the street or starting a venture business as the 386 Generation did in the 1990s, young people today are focused on positioning themselves in a highly competitive society.
The two generations also have distinctly different views of two of the most controversial topics in South Korean politics: The United States and North Korea.
As a whole, the 386 Generation takes a critical view of the US. I remember long conversations with students about how the US was supporting dictators in South Korea and maintaining the division of the country to keep its bases and arms market on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea, meanwhile, was the forbidden fruit and viewed through sympathetic eyes. I remember a student telling me, over drinks, that he “admired Kim Il-sung’s spirit.”
The 2030 Generation views the US as a big brand that has strong and weak points. It admires the US for its famous universities and technological innovation, but it is appalled by the gun violence and the horrendous cost of health care. North Korea is viewed as an embarrassment and a danger. I remember one student describing it as a “deformed growth,” but most other students did not seem to know or care much about it.
The recent drop in President Moon Jae-in’s popularity has brought these generational differences to the fore for the first time. Since Kim Dae-jung’s election to presidency in 1997, young voters have broken strongly for more liberal candidates. They were decisive in electing Noh Moo-hyun in 2002 and again in electing Moon Jae-in in 2017.
Differing views of North Korea and of government power have caused the break. With little interest in North Korea, the 2030 Generation is most critical of the unified women’s ice hockey team. Most young people would rather see South Korea compete and win on its own. The 386 Generation, by contrast, views unified hockey team as an embrace of brethren that could lead to improved relations.
The 2030 Generation is more individualistic and views government intervention in the cryptocurrency market as restricting the right to make money. The 386 Generation has a strong collectivist streak similar to older, more conservative generations that makes them more critical of the get-rich-quick appeal of cryptocurrency trading.
Continued loss of support from the 2030 Generation could weaken President Moon for the rest of his term. The break could hurt Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea in local elections scheduled for June if a new moderate opposition party emerges. Such a party could gain traction in National Assembly elections scheduled for April 2020. If such a party does not emerge, young people will most likely gravitate back to the Democratic Party because they view the main opposition Liberty Korea Party negatively.
The break has even greater implications for inter-Korean relations because it shows that anti-North Korean sentiment is no longer limited to the older generation and political right. North Korea can no longer assume that the fading of the older generation means a more sympathetic ear in the South. This complicates North Korean plans to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US with the ultimate goal of driving the US military out.
Tensions will most certainly rise again after the Olympics. North Korea will conduct another test and the US will ratchet up the pressure; the window for diplomacy will continue to close. In this context, the newly revealed hardening of South Korean attitudes toward the North will grow in importance.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.