South Korean Public Opinion on the North 1

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Jaesung Ryu (East Asia Institute)



A colleague in Seoul passed along an interesting paper to us on public opinion with respect to the North, based on a survey of 1,092 respondents. The work has been done by Kang Won-Taek, a professor of Political Science at Seoul National University (SNU) and presented at a symposium run by SNU’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (IPUS).

We have blogged on some parallel work by the East Asia Institute, focusing on the public’s response to the management of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do shellings. With elections loom (National Assembly in April 2012, presidential elections in December), the issue could gain salience.

Or not. As a North Korea watcher, we always think that we do is important. But the South Korean public disagrees (Table 1 below; the table numbers are from the document and thus not in order.) A scant 4 percent of those surveyed thought that North-South relations was the most significant political issue the country faced. This rises to 25.4 percent if you include respondents first, second and third choices. But this is still dead last among the issues listed, with the economy far-and-away the most important.

We have suggested that the recent changes in GNP policy toward the North might stem from a perception that the electorate is unhappy with the meager results of LMB’s “principled approach.”  In particular, we took note of Park Geun-hye's mildly revisionist Foreign Affairs piece. But Table 6 suggests that disaffection with LMB’s policy toward Pyongyang is no less unfavorable than his overall job rating or the feeling of voters that LMB represents them (“representation.”) To the contrary, his ratings with respect to North Korea are less bad.

Finally, we were quite surprised by the stability of opinion on LMB’s handling of the Cheonan incident and the credibility of the government report (Table 9). Clearly, partisanship matters: those on the right were more likely to see the report as credible than those on the left. But these opinions did not budge between 2010 and 2011, despite what seems to us overwhelming evidence that the North Koreans were the culprits. As we say in political science, party ID matters.

In the next post, some sense of the muddled state of opinion on what to do.

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