Young South Koreans’ Realpolitik Attitude Towards the North

Recent Features

Features | Society | East Asia

Young South Koreans’ Realpolitik Attitude Towards the North

Young South Koreans are more likely to be hawkish toward North Korea — particularly in the face of provocations.

Young South Koreans’ Realpolitik Attitude Towards the North

Protester during an anti-North Korea rally in central Seoul on January 7, 2016.

Credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

For many young South Koreans, North Korea’s latest nuclear test is “barely a blip.” Of course, there are those who take notice, like males currently serving their mandatory two years in the military and those yet to serve. But it is true that far greater immediate impact is perceived outside of the peninsula than within. The latest provocative step taken by North Korea is nothing new, and it isn’t exactly a pressing issue. But lurking beneath the ambivalence and hidden in the shoulder shrugs is an increasingly hawkish attitude toward a country whose members were once considered by many, if not most, to be part of the same nation.

Those coming of age today (the 20s age cohort: university students and college-age people) are doing so under political conditions very different from their barely older compatriots (those in their 30s and 40s). There are many ways to describe these conditions, but the simplest explanation might read as such: political conditions today have been shaped by post-Sunshine Policy politics and the armed provocations of 2010. The result, for young South Koreans, is a relatively more hawkish political attitude towards North Korea.

The Sunshine Policy, South Korea’s decade-long engagement policy with North Korea, was multifaceted but emphasized above all else diplomatic and economic engagement as means of improving North-South relations and the internal conditions in North Korea. The South also offered material assistance, more or less unconditionally. Originally articulated and implemented by Kim Dae-jung’s administration (Kim would win the Nobel Peace Prize for it), it was continued by Roh Moo-hyun.

The full impact of the Sunshine Policy is a matter of debate, but government reports conclude that it failed to induce significant change in the North. More biting critiques emphasize the deliberate misallocation of the humanitarian aid sent by the South; those who needed it most never received any. Defenders of the policy — most notably, scholar and adviser to both Kim and Roh administrations, Moon Chung-in — blame an unfavorable security environment created by George W. Bush for the policy’s failures. While certain positive developments can be located, the Sunshine Policy’s legacy is uncertain, at best.

If support for engagement was spotty after the Sunshine years, the events of 2010 cemented the turn towards a more confrontational North Korea policy. On March 26, 2010 the Cheonan navel corvette sunk off the peninsula’s west coast. A subsequent international investigation confirmed earlier speculation that the cause of the sinking was a North Korean torpedo attack (this conclusion was and remains contested). In response, the Lee Myong-bak administration implemented the May 24 measure, a policy which barred basically all inter-Korean trade other than that taking place through the Kaesong Industrial Complex. (The measure drove both South Korean capital and North Korean labor to the Sino-Korean border region, especially the Chinese city of Dandong.)

With relations already tense, on November 23 of the same year North Korea shelled Yeongpyeong Island, a small island located near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), a maritime border between the North and the South. The shelling killed two civilians and two soldiers. Suggested motives vary, but the shelling took place following a U.S.-South Korean joint exercise, which may have factored into the decision to attack. If the door for further engagement was shut in March, it was bolted closed in December.

Five years later, not much has changed. There hasn’t been another Cheonan incident, but North-South relations are no better today than they were in January 2011. Public opinion reflects as much.

In a 2011 piece for the edited volume Understanding Korean Identity: Through the Lens of Opinion Survey, Korea University professor of politics and diplomacy Lee Shin-hwa shows that opinions of the North have taken a tumble. Looking at data gathered at two different points in time (2005 & 2010), Lee finds that, when asked whether they think of North Korea as “one of us,” “a brother,” “a neighbor,” “an other,” or “an enemy,” (respondents were asked to pick two) 31.9 percent choose “enemy,” the same number that answered “an other.” This represented a 16.6 and 13.5 percentage point increase, respectively. “One of us” (33.6), “neighbor” (35.4), and “brother” (45.5) were all technically higher, but each saw a decrease over time, by amounts of 11.9, 13.3, and 6.6 pp, respectively.

More recent survey work suggests this trend is more than transitory. A January 2015 Asan Public Opinion Report on “South Korean Attitudes toward North Korea and Reunification” between 2010 and 2014 highlights “youth detachment from North Korea” as “perhaps the most important recurring theme in public opinion data” over the period considered. Notably, the report finds the 20s age cohort as “conservative on hard security issues” (e.g., North Korea) and “far more conservative when it comes to North Korea than are those currently in their thirties and forties.”

With regards to security issues, additional data suggest the 20s age cohort aligns with the most conservative cohort in Korean society (the 60s+ group). While these cohorts diverge significantly with regard to presidential approval and other wedge issues (e.g., the recent Japan-South Korea comfort women agreement), what unites them is their realpolitik attitude toward foreign affairs, especially regarding North Korea.

The attitudes may align, but the reasons for aligning are likely very different. Older South Koreans, some of who actually experienced national division and civil war, were recipients of a strong anti-communist education under contentious, politically unstable conditions. Young people today, while still subjected to some degree of anti-communist propaganda, are coming of age under relatively liberal, pluralistic political conditions in times of material abundance and political stability.

Further, young people today are becoming politically conscious at a time when South Korea is economically powerful and an influential actor internationally — a “middle power,” as certain IR discourses would have it. It means something to be distinctively South Korean today, a sense of identity with the Republic that didn’t exist in times past. Indeed, those in their 20s seem to have little sympathy for pan-Korean nationalism, a sentiment easily found in older generations. Replacing it is a sense of South Korean nationalism — a new nationalism.

With a new nationalism come new attitudes, especially regarding North Korea. Thus, the events of 2010 can be seen as having a relatively more powerful, constitutive effect on the attitudes of young South Koreans vis-à-vis the other age cohorts.

Others agree. In a August 2015 article on rising patriotism among those in their 20s, professor of sociology at Seoul National University Kim Seok-ho is quoted as saying, “People in their 20s did not receive an anti-communist education and are politically apathetic. But because they experienced the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in their teens or early adulthood, they may have developed conservative and nationalistic views.”

The observed attitudes are certainly conservative, and the professor is right to point this out. But they are no less nationalistic than pan-Korean attitudes. Nationalism isn’t a new phenomenon in South Korea today; it’s simply different than before. The difference is that one type of nationalism is driven by an ethnic affinity (to the pan-Korean nation) and the other an affinity for South Korea.

The latest nuclear test may not have significantly impacted attitudes toward North Korea. But don’t let ambivalence toward one event blur the bigger picture; more fundamental changes have already taken place. For many young Koreans, the well is already spoiled. With a generational decrease in support for national reunification coupled with a waning of ethnic nationalism, North Korea is increasingly just “another country.” And when another country acts in violent or threatening ways, negative attitudes tend to follow.