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What Do Younger South Koreans Think of North Korea?
College students take a selfie with cutouts of North Korean cheerleaders in Seoul, South Korea (Jan. 10, 2018). The signs read: "We welcome the attendance of North Korea at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics."
Image Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

What Do Younger South Koreans Think of North Korea?

 
 

Recent inter-Korean talks have helped decrease, if temporarily, the over-heated rhetoric between the Trump administration and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea as well as overall tensions on the Korean Peninsula. They have also led to some of the most tangible signs of reconciliation between Seoul and Pyongyang in over a decade, including an agreement to have their athletes march together under one flag at the opening ceremonies and form a joint women’s ice hockey team. Both sides have marched together nine times, including at the 2000 Sydney Olympics (the year of the first inter-Korean summit meeting) as well as during the 2004 Athens Games and 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, often carrying a blue-and-white flag representing a united Korea. The joint athletic team, however, is a historical first for the two Koreas.

Nonetheless, while a reduction in tensions is a welcome development in Seoul, the Moon administration’s quick pursuit of inter-Korean talks and willingness to incorporate the North’s athletes into South Korea’s own team has not been so eagerly embraced by the South Korean public. Recent data shows the Moon administration’s approval ratings have dropped below 60 percent for the first time since taking office. A Real Meter survey published on January 25 showed the administration’s nationwide approval rating sliding 10.8 percentage points over the previous two weeks, from 70.6 to 59.8 percent, with a precipitous 6.6 percent drop over the week prior. Gallup Korea’s survey data revealed similar results.

Although there are several reasons for the ratings slump, the most statistically salient was the disapproval of the plan to form a unified inter-Korean women’s hockey team, with additional concern over the perceived pro-North Korean tendency of the Moon administration. While opposition was expected from more conservative citizens and political parties, such as the Liberty Korea Party (which has taken to calling the upcoming games the “Pyongyang Olympics”), disapproval among younger South Koreans stood out.

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The Moon administration acknowledged as much. One Blue House source stated that: “We thought the public would understand and support the forming of a unified team, but there turned out to be major differences with the views of the ‘2030 generation’ [young people in their 20s and 30s]…We failed to gauge their feelings accurately.” Disapproval of the administration’s move was reinforced by a Hankook Research survey released by the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, which showed 58.7 percent of respondents opposing formation of a unified hockey team and only 37.7 percent supporting it. Immediate polling data aside, this points to a larger, more important issue, namely, the critical if not hostile attitude of younger South Koreans toward North Korea.

Although intergenerational differences exist within most national contexts, South Korea presents a unique case. Unlike most other countries, it underwent a process of rapid industrialization and modernization, transformed from abject poverty following the Korean War into a high-income, OECD member country today. The transformation occurred over several decades, with each successive generation living through a formative experience distinct from that of the cohort preceding it. With this in mind, I asked Steven Denney, graduate fellow at the Asian Institute and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto, a series of questions on South Korea’s generational divide. Denney, formerly a blogger for The Diplomat’s Koreas section, focuses on issues related to contemporary Korean national identity.

The Diplomat: How do younger South Koreans’ attitudes differ from their parents’ and grandparents’ cohort in terms of their view of the North Korean regime, the North Korean people, engagement with Pyongyang, and, finally, reunification? 

Denney: The data shows clear age cohorts (or generational) differences in South Korea regarding on a number of dimensions. Those in their 20s and 30s are less likely to see North Korea as part of the same nation and are more likely to show even hostile views towards the North. They are less likely to support (re)unification — especially those in their 20s.

The way young people see North Korean people is a bit more complicated. Their views toward resettled North Korean defectors, for instance, indicate that they view them as members of the South Korean national community, but not in the same way that older age cohorts do. They are less likely to see them as sharing the same culture and norms. Younger South Koreans feel closer to North Korean migrants than, say, foreign workers, but they will feel closer to a native born child of non-Korean ethnicity than a former resident of North Korea.

What do you think is the most salient explanation(s) for intergenerational differences in attitudes toward North Korea?

A changing conception of what it means to be Korean and a lower tolerance for North Korean provocations. The former is part of a broader transformation of South Korean national identity from one defined by ethnocultural traits to one defined by status, citizenship, and global norms. The latter concerns the impact of the growing up at a time when North Korean is increasingly seen as a source of instability. Many young South Koreans today have come of age during North Korea’s nuclear push. They see international condemnation and sanctions against a country which regularly threatens to turn their capital city into a sea of fire. Consider how those who were between the age of, say, 18-25 when North Korea sank a South Korean naval corvette and shelled an island might think about North Korea? Not positively!

Much is made of ethnic nationalism in Korea, as well as other East Asian countries. How might the above survey data indicate other important factors in the formation of national identity? Is ethnic nationalism on the wane? 

It’s true that ethnicity is a salient component of Korean national identity, and has been for some time. You won’t, however, hear politicians today admonishing the minjok to achieve great feats like you did during South Korea’s developmental years. Even if they did, it would likely be met with ambivalence or confusion. For many of those who have come of age during in times of relative abundance and under democratic rule, ethnicity isn’t a particularly salient component of their national identity. This isn’t to say that all younger South Koreans are at odds with ethnonationalist claims or sentiments, but that times are changing — and in typical Korean fashion, changing rapidly.

Finally, what are the public policy/foreign policy implications of younger South Koreans’ attitudes toward North Korea? 

Moon’s electoral coalition is made up of many who are weary of engaging North Korea. He has both his own approving rating to look after, and that of his party (Minjoo). We can see the backlash that the Moon administration faced for pursuing a more conciliatory approach to North Korea. Many South Koreans, especially younger folks, were displeased at with the decision to field a joint women’s ice hockey team. It stands to reason that they will be even less likely to support policies that come across as excessively compromising, or are perceived to put in jeopardy the interests of South Koreans. It makes it unlikely that [we will see] anything on par with the substantive engagement from the “sunshine” years.

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