Recent South Korean polling results reinforce the finding of an earlier experts survey, documenting deteriorating perceptions of Japan and South Korea-Japan relations. According to results published by the Asan Institute, South Korean perceptions of Japan have fallen noticeably since Abe Shinzo became Prime Minister in December 2012 (see above). Abe himself barely edges out North Korean lead Kim Jong-un in terms of South Korean public perceptions and registers less than half the favorability of Russia’s Vladmir Putin. Yet a clear majority of South Koreans would like to see President Park repair the relationship.
These attitudes appear to be at least partially rooted in the perception that the relationship with Japan is increasingly one of competitive rivalry, not cooperation (see above). An astonishingly paranoid editorial published in the Maeil Business Daily, South Korea’s equivalent to the Wall Street Journal, then redistributed by the Korea Foundation, exemplifies this trend.
Such attitudes are not limited to the press, either. So, for example, this spring, amidst the North Korean threats, South Korean finance minister Hyun Oh-seok asserted that Abenomics was a bigger threat to the South Korean economy than North Korean provocations. In a narrow sense he was probably right: the yen depreciation encouraged by Abenomics probably has had a bigger effect on the South Korean economy than the North Korean bluster which was largely discounted by the markets. But the fact that the South Korean finance minister would make such a comparison while in the United States, which North Korea was threatening with a nuclear first strike, says something about the political atmosphere in South Korea. Between North Korea’s improved favorability scores as a result of the charm offensive that followed this spring’s saber-rattling, views of the two countries have almost entirely converged, re-establishing the status quo of a year ago, when North Korea was actually viewed more favorably than Japan. At least Japan is regarded as less of a military threat.
Yet there is a silver lining amidst the gloom. As Asan researchers Karl Friedhoff and Kang Chungku point out, while South Korean attitudes toward Japan remain critical, there is widespread support for President Park to improve the relationship. A majority of South Koreans support a bilateral summit, and indeed, such support is higher among self-identified progressives than conservatives, and varies inversely with the age of the respondent. In short, improving relations with Japan, along with economic projects with North Korea, appear to be among the few agenda items for which there is a national consensus, in a highly polarized country.