South Korea’s Shifting Politics
Image Credit: US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

South Korea’s Shifting Politics


With a presidential election looming next year, the South Korean media has begun to speculate on who will be the next president. So far, most of the coverage has focused solely on potential candidates, offering lists of politicians with some analysis of their respective strengths and weaknesses.

In most cases, however, there’s been a dearth of proper discussion of the issues and trends that are shaping public opinion. This is a real shortcoming—to make any meaningful forecasts for the December 2012 poll, it’s essential to know not only who will run for office, but also how the voters are seeing the issues. With this in mind, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies undertook a nationwide public opinion survey last autumn of 2000 adults.

Conventional wisdom holds that conservatives and liberals in Korea can be defined by their attitudes toward North Korea and the United States—conservatives are hardliners on North Korea and supporters of the United States, while liberals are said to be more sympathetic to Pyongyang and to tend to be more anti-American. In addition, older generations are generally believed to be more conservative.

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But the 2010 survey reveals a pragmatism among South Koreans in their attitudes toward the United States that somewhat belies these assumptions. Even those surveyed who didn’t view the United States favourably (for instance, those who saw the United States as an obstacle in North-South relations), believed that the South Korea-US alliance will be necessary in the future. Almost 90 percent of respondents supported the alliance moving forward, including 86.5 percent of those who consider themselves to be liberals.

This upbeat view may well have been reinforced by North Korea’s hostile acts in 2010, as well as by South Koreans’ diminishing confidence in their ability to deter Pyongyang—less than a quarter of South Koreans believed that the country’s military could deter North Korean provocations without US help. 

Meanwhile, it’s also interesting to note that South Koreans appear to separate their feelings toward the United States from their support for the alliance, a tendency that’s more pronounced among generations in their 20s and 30s. In addition, younger generations are also less likely to view the United States favourably than older respondents (52.3 percent and 48.8 percent of those in their 20s and 30s said they like the United States, compared with 66.6 percent of those in their 60s).

But it’s not just security issues that divide Koreans ideologically—social and economic issues were actually found to be even more important. This trend is particularly strong among younger South Koreans, most notably those in their 30s. This could in part be because North Korean provocations have anyway prompted a generally more conservative mindset among South Koreans of all generations. Whatever the reason, though, the survey revealed significant differences among the generations and between conservatives and liberals on social issues such as abortion, gay rights, migrant workers and individual freedom.

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