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AsiaThursday, March 2

South Korean Teens Call for Voting Rights

The political scandal that led to the suspension of President Park Gyun-hye is boosting political engagement among younger South Koreans, who are calling for voting rights.

Many high school students throughout the country are politically energized these days, and they want more of a say.

"We want to elect the country’s leader ourselves in order to create a better society for us all," says a student at one protest.

The corruption scandal involving the president and her long-time friend Choi Soon-sil has kept Boo Seok-woo busy with a youth group that's engaged in social issues.

Boo is in his last year of high school with university entrance exams on the horizon, but he's got politics on the brain.

"I believe our society should be one where efforts are rewarded and supported. To make such a society, I'll continue to campaign for political issues including teenage voting rights," Boo says.

The country's teachers don't think a change is a good idea. They say students need to focus on university entrance exams, not politics.

"They would argue about politics or who should be elected. If they were eligible to vote, they wouldn't be able to concentrate on their studies," says Kim Jae-cheol, an official with the Korea Federation of Teachers’ Association.

A bill to lower the voting age from 19 to 18 was proposed by opposition lawmakers last May. The bill cleared a hurdle in January but the ruling party kept it from being debated in the general session this month. It says further discussion is needed.

"Many parents are very concerned about the bill. If we lower the voting age, we have to transform our school system including the age for graduating from high school," says In Myung-jin, Liberty Korea Party’s interim leader.

Another possible reason for the ruling party's hesitancy is the fact it's got relatively low support levels among young voters. Recent polls show South Koreans are evenly split over the issue.

That doesn't deter teenagers like Boo, who will continue their campaign.

"If teenagers talk more about politics from their younger years, and if they carry out their rights to vote with their own views, I think our country can avoid making the same mistakes of the past," Boo says.

This year's crop of 18-year-olds would account for 1.5 percent of the total electorate. But in a country that's been sharply divided by scandal, every vote counts.