South Korean Public Opinion on the North 2

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



In our previous post, we shared some information from Kang Won-Taek, a professor of Political Science at Seoul National University, on public opinion in South Korea; in this post, we continue the discussion.

What do South Koreans think the government should do with respect to North Korea? The answer is that voters are like the rest of us; they are cautious and its to figure out what priorities should be. Table 4 below shows responses on a five point scale (from agree strongly to disagree strongly) to a variety of policy options. On average, opinion hugs the middle; the standard deviation, while substantial at about 1 for each question, is not huge.

To our surprise, the policy measure that seemed to garner the strongest support was the need to take a strong stance on human rights issues. Perhaps right and left have finally converged to some extent on this issue. Another surprise was that there was actually more support for restarting Mt. Kumgang tours than there was for continuing the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

There is marginally more skepticism about options such as sending leaflets, demanding an apology or resuming support to the North in the absence of progress on the nuclear issue. But none of these options are rejected strongly.

Looking forward, Table 14 provides some insight on favored solutions by partisan identity: the GNP, the DP and voters that do not offer a partisan identification (No Support; note that over 60 percent of all respondents fall in this swing-voter category). Not surprisingly, DP voters placed a higher priority on defusing tensions and restarting exchanges. But the share of GNP and swing voters who listed this option as their first choice was also high, which confirms our suspicion that the GNP may be nervous about the issue. There was surprisingly weak support for the Six Party Talks process, an active unification policy or signing a peace treaty, although the numbers for each of these options was not zero.

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In short, we interpret the data as suggesting the following:

  • The political salience of the issue is surprisingly low;
  • Respondents assessment of LMB’s handling of North Korea are marginally better than his overall approval ratings, and there has not been much change in the last year about his handling of the Cheonan.
  • The South Korean electorate is torn about what to do, which is not surprising given the intractability of the issue. But there does seem some support for a “softer” stance in the GNP, which would imply some convergence between the major parties on the issue.

Congratulations to Prof. Kang for this interesting research.

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