Features | Politics | East Asia

South Korea’s Shifting Politics

Younger generations of South Koreans are more pragmatic than their elders, especially over the US alliance, says Woo Jung-Yeop.

By Woo Jung-Yeop for

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.

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. 

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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.

So what’s behind these increasingly diverging political views? The main reason is that young people are playing a completely different political game than older generations. About a decade ago, all age groups—including the so-called 386 generation, who were born in the 1960s and went to college in the 1980s—were engaged in the same kind of process. As democratization in Korea is closely tied to relations with the United States and North Korea, important elements of this process are bound to be North-South security issues and pro or anti-Americanism. Before the advance of the 386 generation in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Korean politics were strongly influenced by the older generation, which pursued hard-line security policy and pro-Americanism.

Gradually, as the power of the 386 generation increased, soft security policy and anti-Americanism became more prominent. And now, with South Korea’s 386 generation in their 40s, the country’s new younger generation of 20 and 30-somethings are growing up having never experienced the struggle for democratization. Raised in a fully-democratized civil society, they have very different policy views on North Korea and the United States, and have moved beyond the traditional ideological security battles of a decade ago.

So what does this mean for how the South Korea-US alliance issue will play out in next year’s presidential election?  It’s still too early to say what will happen for sure, but one thing we can be certain of is that security perceptions are going to play a much different role now, and it’s going to be especially difficult to determine how those in their 20s and 30s will respond to security issues.

There’s already evidence of this from last June’s local elections, in which younger generations responded unexpectedly to the March 2010 Cheonan sinking—they seemed far more interested in the social implications. Security concerns did indeed arise among the younger generation over the Cheonan incident, but largely because they believed that the government had tried to use the sinking as a political tool, and was trying to stifle opposition.

If there’s no strong provocation from North Korea, public perceptions of the alliance will probably be a constant variable in 2012—as long as the alliance remains a security issue, younger generations will be unlikely to react strongly to it. However, if it becomes a social issue, things could be very different. 

With this in mind, it’s vital that political parties work to serve younger generations’ demands. At present, young people simply aren’t particularly motivated by democratization or national security issues. As a result, if political parties want to mobilize and appeal to young people, they will need to offer them genuine social policy choices. South Korea’s politicians need to step up and be ready to embrace this changed reality.

Woo Jung-Yeopis a Research Fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

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(This is an edited version of an article pubished here by the Center for US-Korea Policy and the Asia Foundation).