Reunification a Necessary Evil?

April 9, 2015 5:15 AM

The Asan Institute maintains an active public opinion polling effort, and earlier this year put out a fascinating report on South Korean attitudes toward North Korea and reunification. The messages arising from the poll results are subtle: while overall perceptions of North Korea remain highly negative there is growing interest in reunification. However, interest in reunification declines monotonically with age, so young people in their 20s have both negative perceptions of North Korea and relatively low interest in reunification. The extent to which the relatively negative views of today’s youth is a product of formative events such as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and hence may be a transitory phenomenon versus a permanent secular decline in interest in reunification among the South Korean public is unknowable today. But I have interpreted President Park Geun-hye’s vocal advocacy of reunification as an attempt by a political leader to respond to this situation, which if continued, could see a withering in support for reunification among the South Korean public, and a permanent division of the peninsula.

The poll was conducted between 1-19 September with a sample size of 1,500.

The bases for the negative views toward North Korea are primarily due to differences in the political system, and as such, do not extend to the North Korean people themselves. Yet even in terms of affinity, North Korea ranks below the US and China, besting only Japan.

Young people combine liberal or libertarian attitudes on social issues such as marriage equality with hardline or conservative views on security and North Korea. They are the group least likely to see North Koreans as people sharing the same bloodlines or ethnicity, and the most likely to see themselves as having different values than their North Korean counterparts. They are the group least likely to be interested in reunification, but this point should not be exaggerated too much: more than 70 percent of those in their 20s still expressed interest in reunification.

The Asan Institute has been conducting this poll since 2010. During that period the share of the public believing unification is unnecessary has fallen to below 10 percent, which the share saying “no rush” has fallen from 30 percent to 10 percent. Those declines have been absorbed by increases in the share of respondents wanting unification “as soon as possible” and a major increase in the share supporting a policy of unification “dependent on circumstance” which has risen from 47 percent to 71 percent over this period. Given the widespread generally negative views on North Korea, one is tempted to conclude that the net increases in the shares supporting unification “as soon as possible” and especially “depending on circumstances,” reflects a growing perception that the Kim regime may be irredeemable so one has to take the possibility of unification seriously, like it or not. To wit, a plurality (48 percent) supports a unification tax.

In this context, the study’s authors contend that President Park’s emphasis on the economic “bonanza” aspects of reunification may actually undercut public support for it. They argue that the public puts greater weight on ethnic nationalist motives for reunification than on economic reasons, though the differences do not seem to be that large, and in some cases are within the survey margin of error. They claim that President Park’s emphasis on the economic aspects of reunification actually detracts from the more solid basis in ethnic affinity. But it is not clear to me why the two classes of motives should be viewed in zero-sum terms: one can do good while doing well, after all.

But this review just scratches the surface of a more wide-ranging report. Well worth reading.

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Marcus Noland Senior Research Staff

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