Our friend Dan Pinkston has produced another high-quality International Crisis dossier, this time on South Korea: the Shifting Sands of Security Policy. The report highlights a core tension in South Korean public opinion. Not surprisingly, there is increased impatience with North Korea following the attacks of 2010. Yet at the same time there is nervousness that the Lee administration might be aggravating the situation. (We noted similar schizophrenia in public opinion data from Kang Won-Taek of SNU, here and here.) Moreover, the government’s tough-guy stance hasn’t yielded much, and has until recently blocked progress on talks.
Such divisions are a fact of political life, but they are now salient because of the upcoming elections and the apparent shift toward the left which Pinkston documents in some detail. The report also provides a useful primer on the Democratic Party’s policy toward the North, which include a return to engagement and a proposal for a “peace zone” around the NLL that was first vetted at the 2007 Kim-Roh summit. A large portion of the ICG report delves into the political economy of the peace zone concept in detail.
Given the changing political landscape, it is perhaps not surprising that Park Geun-hye’s recent Foreign Affairs piece seemed to us to reflect a subtle distancing from the Lee administration (our summary here). The new unification minister, Yu Woo-ik [Ryu U-ik], has also expressed the desire to introduce greater flexibility in dealing with the North.
But we should not overestimate the role that North Korea will play in the election. A majority of voters express disaffection with Lee’s hardline stance to the North. But both the ICG report and the Kang data cited above show that the North Korean morass has surprisingly little salience to South Korean voters, consistently ranking well behind the economy and such hot-button issues as education costs.