Gusts of Popular Feeling: South Korean Presidential Race and North Korea, an Interview
With entrepreneur and tech-savvy Ahn Chol-soo’s entrance into the presidential race as a political independent, the political environment in South Korea has suddenly become much more interesting. While domestic media is focusing on economics and personality, how each of the respective candidates proposes to approach North Korea is gaining traction as an important consideration to take into account. How do individual citizens perceive South Korea’s position vis-a-vis the northern neighbor? How ought the government in Seoul approach its often petulant brother in Pyongyang?
Karl Friedhoff, Program Officer at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and integral member of their Public Opinion Studies Center, talks about the forthcoming elections, presidential candidates, the North Korea-issue, and the effect that public opinion may have on the formulation of political power and policy in South Korea. – Steven Denney, Assistant Editor
Interview with Karl Freidhoff, Asan Institute for Policy Studies
Conducted by Steven Denney
Do you foresee any issue in the forthcoming election superseding that of regional cleavages? What do recent public opinion polls reveal?
The big issue is always job creation and anything to do with the economy. The regional issue will be played on, but the candidates will not specifically address them or exacerbate them. The regional issue is already so ingrained within the political spectrum, that they don’t have to do anything; they’re just naturally there. One of the other important issues to look out for is job creation within Busan, Ulsan, and Kyungnam. Specifically, public opinion polling reveals that 50 percent of voters in Busan and Ulsan see Ahn Chul-soo as the candidate most likely to address the issue of job creation, despite this area being a traditional stronghold for conservatives (of which Ahn is not). However, whether the issue of job creation comes to the political forefront and is used to “swing” the election is yet to be seen.
Personally, I highly doubt it; the candidates are much more likely to return to their old habits, thus we are likely to witness, again, the traditional east versus west split between Honam and Yougnam. Thus, in the end, regional cleaves will be the issue that becomes the overarching issue—all others will remain in the political background.
How do South Koreans feel about Lee Myung-bak’s North Korean policy after nearly five years?
Due to the personalization of politics in South Korea, it can be hard to make an objective evaluation—as far as public opinion is concerned. In Seoul, the Lee administration’s North Korea policy may have been unpopular, but I think, from a domestic perspective, there is a confusion between the popularity of a policy and the popularity of the president himself—these two issues are often mixed up. In general, people are more supportive than it seems of Lee’s North Korea policy—yes, to some extent, his North Korea policy is unpopular, but not nearly as much as it seems. As of now, anything that includes Lee Myung-bak’s name is immediately discounted and unpopular. So, when asked for their opinion on an issue related to the current administration—like its North Korea policy—people are not judging the quality of the policy; they’re judging the quality of the president.
Does each presidential candidate have a discernible North Korea policy? If so, what are they?
Moon Jae-in has come out and stated they he will return to the Sunshine Policy; he is looking for summits and has indicated that he would be willing to almost immediately met with Kim Jong-un. On the other side, we have Park Gun-hye and her Foreign Affairs article, wherein she describes her North Korean policy as “trustpolitik”—whatever that means. If you read the article, you’ll notice that her policy towards the North comes across as very similar to the Six-Party line of “action for action.” This is how I read it—and read her: We’ll wait for North Korea to move first and then respond accordingly. An action of good faith from Pyongyang will be reciprocated in Seoul, thus building trust. This is, essentially, the policy of the Lee Myung-bak administration.
As far as Ahn Chul-soo is concerned, no one is really quite sure, yet, where he will come down on North Korea. Even in the sections from his book, Thoughts of Ahn Chul-soo, that deal with North Korea, there isn’t anything particularly revealing; it’s all rather textbook stuff, with nothing concrete from which a North Korea policy can be discerned. Given his progressive disposition, people expect Ahn to be in the “engagement” camp. In our public opinion polling, there does seem to be some force behind this approach. In general, people tend to support engagement; they don’t want a more hard-line, militarist approach.
Based on your opinion polls, would you say that “the people have spoken” regarding South Korea’s policy towards the North?
Yes, insofar as the people want “something different.” However, what this means, in relation to the respective candidates’ discernible positions, is still somewhat unclear. People simply want some form of engagement, but that’s only until another provocation. Say, for example, if an incident were to occur around the NLL [Northern Limit Line], where there is currently much North-South activity, public opinion would shift very suddenly, especially so amongst people in their 20s. When we talk to this age cohort, they sound much more like people in their 60s. While progressive on social issues—multiculturalism, income redistribution and the like—they are distinctively more conservative when it comes to security issues; regarding security-related issues, they align much more closely with the 60s age cohort. Thus, if any candidate where to come out in too strong support for a Sunshine-like North Korea policy, they would essentially be alienating two large age groups—the 20s and 60s. When given the importance of winning over these two age groups, such a move would put their presidential campaign in great political danger.
Will Ahn Chol-soo and Moon Jae-in run on separate tickets or reach an agreement leading one of them to drop out of the race? Who does the public more strongly support?
They have to reach an agreement, one way or another. It has been clear since we began asking questions under the assumption of a three-way race that this splits the progressive ticket resulting in a Park Gun-hye victory, hands down. In fact, since Ahn entered the race, he has received no effective popularity boost; instead, Park, given the progressive-divide, was given a slight boost in popular support. All this means, for the progressive side, is: Somebody has to get out. And, if the progressive are serious about winning, it has to be Moon. While he has strong support from the opposition DUP (Democratic United Party), it does not surpass that of Ahn—support here is essentially split down the middle. More importantly, independent voters (those with no party affiliation) strongly support Ahn; there is nearly a 20-point gap between Ahn and Moon amongst independent voters. If Moon runs, he will not get their support, in any way unless there is a major change. This is problematic since Moon perceives his nomination as coming through the legitimate vetting process, through the DUP, whereas Ahn, who jumped in the race from the outside, does not have the added benefit of a party christening. Though Moon is likely to eventually see that he must drop out, it is yet to be seen how much of a political impact Moon’s continued presence will have for progressives and the opposition party.
Can North Korea use a provocative action to influence the domestic political environment in South Korea, or has the “Northern Wind” all but completely blown over?
There is some talk about this phenomenon—an always-ongoing conservation. I’ve been saying for months now that the time is right for a provocation, and that’s not because of the election. If a provocation does occur, people will be quick to jump to the conclusion that it is an effort on behalf on Pyongyang to influence the election—but, in my opinion, this is clearly not the case. Instead, North Korea will be attempting to exploit the current Korea-Japanese split; given that the US has yet to take sides provides all the more opportunity for North Korea to take advantage of an ROK-Japan rift. It just so happens that there are South Korean elections going on in the background. It’s true that the opportunity to affect the domestic political environment is there and they can do it—but this is not influencing Pyongyang’s political and strategic calculus. Instead, issues are fortuitously lining up very nicely for North Korea—a sort of political “perfect storm.”
Another part of the analysis regards the perception that North Korea always benefits from progressive presidents and their Sunshine policies, because the North gets many material benefits. I also think this line of analysis is wrong. The government in Pyongyang benefits much more from a hard-line administration in Seoul, because they’re all about internal legitimacy. And what better way to garner domestic legitimacy than the “southern antithesis”—South Korean opposition to the government in Pyongyang. In other words: the North Korean regime must have something to oppose. Without something to oppose, the North Korea’s government’s legitimacy to rule would be called into question.
North Korea can influence South Korean politics, and they would prefer a conservative administration, but if they do make a provocative act, it won’t be only about South Korean elections.
Based on your analysis, would you disagree with BR Myers’ assertion that North Korean provocations can, contrary to conventional analysis, lead to more North-friendly policies?
It all depends on what age group we’re talking about. There is a political theory that states when a person comes of age—in their late teens/early 20s—the government in power at that time has a disproportional amount of influence on shaping of that person’s political outlook in the long-term. As that person ages, he or she will largely maintain the political outlook formulated during those formative years. So, for the 386 generation—those currently in their 30s and 40s—who “came to age” during the Sunshine years, they have much more friendly-dispositions towards North Korea. However, what we’re seeing now is that the political position of people in their 20s is not at all like the previous generation’s, regarding North Korea-related issues. They are very security-minded and look just as, if not more, conservative than the oldest generation. So, without this age breakdown, Myers’ theory may seem correct, but if evaluated by age group, does not hold true for the population as a whole, especially those in their 20s.
So, in the case of an additional North Korean provocation—for example, a third nuclear test—the response, contrary to Myers’ thesis, would be a call for a more hard-line North Korea-policy?
Though those in their 30s and 40s may call for the opposite, people in their 20s would call for a much harder-line policy, in addition to the older generations. You must remember that the 2010 provocations are for the younger generation what have most strongly influenced their political views. This generation can’t appreciate the democratization movement in the way their parents do—they weren’t a part of it—nor can they understand what it means to live in a poor Korea. This, then, influences the way they think a neighbor ought to act.
Moreover, people from this age group are much less likely to cite North Korea as “one of us,” which is often used as a reason for reunification. In public polling, we ask people how they perceive North Korea: “one of us,” “a neighbor,” “a stranger,” or “an enemy.” People in their 30s and 40s are much more likely to respond with “one of us”—a response also common amongst people in their 50s and 60s. However, the frequency of this response from people in their 20s is very low. A plurality of responses in this age group is split between viewing North Korea as “a neighbor” or “an enemy.”
You’ve commented before that younger generations in South Korea want a “strong Korea,” regardless of their ideological affiliation. What does a “strong Korea” mean, and how does this affect public perception of candidates and political parties?
A “strong Korea” means an “independent Korea.” While there is a lot of support for the US-ROK alliance, we are seeing across the board stronger support for a more independent Korea. This is especially true for people in their 20s. For this age group, they know no other strong regional power in the way their parents and grandparents did, other than Korea itself. Growing up in the age of Japan’s lost decade, the concept of a strong Japan is lost on them, and China, though certainly an economic power, is not perceived to be as industrially and technologically advanced as Korea. Their perception of what Korea is and represents is much different from that of previous generations. Events like the 2002 World Cup, wherein the Koreans had a strong showing, are some of the earliest memories for younger Koreans. They have this new perception, which although not revealed in the numbers, is reshaping the way Koreans view themselves and, as such, is redefining Korean identity. This is one reason why age/generation gaps are so large and discernible in South Korea. People in their 50s and 60s are, of course, Korean, but they are fundamentally different from younger Koreans in thought and identity due largely to significantly different experiences—politically and socially—during their formative years. For the youngest generation in Korea, it is taken for granted that Korea is a strong and prosperous nation.
Given this divergence in views between different age groups, an important question is who has more political influence? In other words, from a political-perspective, who matters more—the young or relatively older?
Politically speaking, everyone will tell you the 20s. Of course, this depends largely on voter turnout. In any case, we already know who the people in their 50s and 60s are voting for—the conservative candidate, Park Gun-hye. And, as is the case worldwide, older age groups have a much higher voter turnout than younger voters. Now, if people in their 20s and 30s turn out to vote, a vast majority would cast their ballot for Ahn Chul-soo. So that basically leaves people in their 40s; they are the political unknowns, the “difference makers.” If you look at things in a three-way race, the 40s are essentially evenly split between Park Gun-hye and Ahn Chol-soo. Further, if you narrow it down to a head-to-head between Ahn and Park, Ahn has a 15-20 point lead. So, you could say that the “relatively aged” are the most important.