My First Vote in a Korean Presidential Election – in New York

Munyoung Cho displaying the stamp proving that she voted (Photo by Munyoung Cho for Voices of NY)

I was born on Dec. 31, 1993 in South Korea. Because the voting age in Korea is 19 and the last presidential election was held on Dec. 19, 2012, I just missed the opportunity to vote – unlike most of my friends. So the current presidential election, being held now because of President Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment on corruption charges, offered me my first chance at voting for my country’s president.

In Korea, the vote will be on May 9. But overseas, voting just ended. And because I’ve spent the past few months in New York, interning and improving my English, I cast my vote on April 28. I was so happy and proud when I was done that I texted my parents back home, eager to report the deed – but I wouldn’t tell them who I voted for among the field of 15 candidates.

Staffers guiding the voters at the polling place in Flushing. (Photo by Munyoung Cho for Voices of NY)

In the New York area, the Korean Consulate General reported a tally of 9,690 votes, while across the U.S. in 13 cities, 48,487 Korean citizens voted. Like me, many of them went to special polling places that had been set up for the week of overseas voting.

On April 28, although the weather was really hot, a lot of Koreans who live near New York gathered in front of the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Manhattan to go to the polling station in Flushing, Queens, selected as a polling place because of its relatively easy access for most Koreans.

The consulate wasn’t able to accommodate all the Koreans who wanted to vote on April 28 on the big shuttle bus, so they called a taxi for some of us, including me. I knew that there were a lot of Koreans in New York, but it had been a while since I’d seen so many Koreans all together.

At the ballot boxes. (Photo by Munyoung Cho for Voices of NY)

The polling station was pretty far from the Korean Consulate General. It took about an hour to get to Reception House, the location on Northern Boulevard where the voting booths had been set up. As people arrived, staffers guided the way to the polling station. We’d all already been required to register online, which I’d done only a couple of weeks earlier in April.

When I arrived, I showed them my Korean ID (driver’s license), and they gave me the ballot with my Korean address marked on it. Then, I went to one of the booths and voted, after which my hand was stamped. A funny thing is that many Koreans took a photo with the stamp on their hand to prove that they voted. I took a photo too, and uploaded it to my Instagram account.

One noteworthy feature of this election is that 15 people announced their candidacy for president, the greatest number in the history of democratic Korea. However, in recent weeks the race has become one between the two frontrunners.

The candidate with the highest approval rating is Moon Jae-in. He is currently the Minjoo Party [Democratic Party in Korea] of Korea’s nominee. Previously, he was the Democratic United Party’s candidate for the 2012 presidential election, and competed with Park Geun-hye. Because of Park’s impeachment, many Koreans support him. His approval rating is now around 40 percent.

(Photo by Munyoung Cho for Voices of NY)

The candidate with the second highest approval rating is Ahn Cheol-soo, the People’s Party nominee for the presidential election. Ahn once was in the same party with Moon, but he came out and started a new party. His history is a little unusual. He has changed jobs frequently. He was a doctor, CEO of AhnLab [which sells antivirus and online security software], a professor at KAIST [Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology] and now he wants to be president. His approval rating is about 20 percent, but it’s fallen since his relatively poor performance in televised debates.

The economy, relations with the U.S. and China while tensions escalate with North Korea, and discussions of THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] have all dominated the debates. I watched five rounds of debates and reviewed the presidential election pledges before deciding who to vote for. My vote was a secret ballot – but I will say that I did my best to select a candidate who could make for a better Korea, because it was the first presidential election in my life and I was so disappointed with Ms. Park.

For me and, it seems, for those who were casting their votes at the same time as me, interest in the election was strong. The NY turnout was about 70 percent of eligible voters, the highest in history. When I went to the polling station, there were Korean students from Cornell University who had rented a bus and come together to the polling station. It was thrilling to feel our passion, and our conviction that the 19th president of the Republic of Korea should work for its citizens, rather than being a corrupt person like Ms. Park.

Munyoung Cho is an intern with Voices of NY and the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in NY.

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