Public Opinion in South Korea: the Effects of the Cheonan and Yeongpyeon Shelling



The East Asia Institute provides some of the best analysis of South Korean public opinion on security issues. Reports from December and February show that while opinion on North Korea remains divided, feelings of insecurity have reached new highs, support for military retaliation has increased sharply while views of engagement—and particularly for aid—have become much more skeptical.

Nae-young Lee and Han-wool Jeong offered an initial assessment of the Lee Myung Bak government’s response to the shelling of Yeongpeyong-do in December. Few thought that the government had done a good job, but partisanship mattered as to why. 42.3 percent of progressives faulted the government’s weak crisis management system, compared to 27.8 percent of conservatives. Conservatives by contrast were more likely to fault the government for its flaccid response (32.2 percent of conservatives vs. 20.9 percent of progressives).

A striking finding of the report, however, was a dramatic increase in those willing to contemplate force. Following the sinking of the Cheonan, EAI researchers asked which of four options respondents favored, allowing them to choose multiple responses: take the issue to the UN Security Council; impose sanctions; sever North-South ties; and undertake limited military retaliation. Only 28.2 percent favored limited military retaliation. After the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, however, 68.6 percent of respondents were open to retaliation. (Support for the other options remained roughly the same: 75-80 percent for reporting to the UN; 59 percent for sanctions; and 45 percent severing North-South relations).

A new report provides more detail and some new findings. Despite the greater numbers willing to contemplate force, a majority still thinks that the LMB government should engage North Korea rather than dealing with it “harshly” (55 percent to 43 percent).

But the trends are running against the North. The EAI study shows that those expressing concern about insecurity on the Korean peninsula rose through the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun governments (although falling around the 2007 summit). Those concerns have now reached unprecedented highs (see figure).

[Source: Nae-young Lee & Han-wool Jeong. 2010. “The Impact of North Korea’s Artillery Strike on Public Opinion in South Korea,” EAI Issue Briefing on Public Opinion]

More people now believe that the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun administrations are more responsible for the nuclear crisis than the current government (43 percent to 35 percent, with other causes making up the difference). In addition to greater tolerance for the use of force, a majority (57 percent) also believes that aid to the North should be minimized or terminated altogether; only 31 percent held this view a year ago.  Those believing the alliance with the US should be strengthened has increased from 35 percent to nearly half, while support for a foreign policy course independent of the US has shrunk to a mere 18 percent.

Pyongyang is skilled at playing on South Korean anxieties and partisan differences, as the Cheonan episode showed. But the shelling of Yeongpyeong-do has clearly cut into the North’s freedom of maneuver. Not only has the military deterrent been strengthened, but public opinion now makes it easier for the LMB administration to use force. Look for the North Koreans to seek out provocations away from the Northern Limit Line that are more likely to drive a wedge into the security relationships with Japan and the US, including a long-range missile test.

More From

Related Topics