Kaesong Complex Shutdown: No Ordinary North Korea Problem

By | February 15, 2016 | No Comments

On February 11, South Korean agency Realmeter conducted an opinion poll looking at initial public responses to the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which was instigated by South Korea on the afternoon of the 10th. This was the first poll to explicitly look at the closure of Kaesong, but it exposed many of the same predictably sharp societal divides that we see in polls on other matters. Yet these were not exactly the same divides – and/or not expressed in quite the same way – that regular readers of Sino-NK might anticipate in light of our past work on South Korea’s so-called “new nationalism.”

Kim Seong-gon, “Total shutdown of Kaesong Complex, ‘Well done’ 47.5% vs ‘A mistake’ 44.3%” [개성공단 전면중단, ‘잘했다’ 47.5% vs ‘잘못했다’ 44.3%], EDaily, February 12, 2016.1)This is a summary of the source, not a direct translation.

Overall, respondents in the Kaesong-focused poll evinced support for the shutdown of the inter-Korean economic project, albeit only by a modest amount, 47.5 percent against 44.3 percent. This lies comfortably within the ±4.3% margin of error.

Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

In a deeply polarized political climate like that of South Korea, overall poll numbers are bound to be distributed more or less 50/50. The more interesting facts lie underneath, in the ways that age and party cookies crumbled.

First, age. The “new nationalism” hypothesis states that state-based nationalist sentiment in South Korea is rising for reasons too various – and in some cases too unclear – to go into. Suffice it to say that this phenomenon is thought to have led to a rising degree of North Korea hawkishness among the youngest adult cohort, those in their 20s. These people are presumed to take a considerably dimmer view of North Korea than people in their 30s or in their 40s, and have scant interest in offering the North aid and assistance thanks to a string of aggressive actions undertaken by Pyongyang since approximately 2006 – nuclear tests, rocket tests, sinking ships, shelling South Korean islands, maiming soldiers with landmines, that type of thing.

This new nationalism hypothesis is lent weight by polling done immediately after the fourth North Korean nuclear test on January 6. One Gallup Korea poll published the week after the test showed people in their 20s feeling as much enmity toward North Korea as people in their 50s and 60s, as against a markedly lower level of concern for those in their 30s and 40s. The same appears in the data summarized here.

The above situation — where young people evince more hawkishness than their seniors and, in some cases, parents — is unusual. It runs contrary to the concept of a life-cycle effect, wherein the process of aging changes political attitudes and associated behavior — generally speaking, making older people more conservative than younger people.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex shutdown is different. As the graph below shows, the only groups in favor of the shutdown are in their 50s and 60s, whereas people in their 20s — as well as 30s and 40s — are strongly opposed to it. It seems to be no ordinary North Korea issue. Speculation as to why this should be is fraught with danger, but my discussions with Koreans suggest that it is because Kaesong is seen as an inter-Korean business project.

Understandably, ordinary South Koreans are not attentive to the specific mechanisms by which the monies paid to Pyongyang are distributed — which some conservative experts regard as akin to slavery. What is recognized, however, is that whereas the Sunshine Policy involved de facto aid to North Korea in large volumes — “giving them a whole lot of free stuff,” in the words of one informant — the Kaesong Industrial Complex works along different lines.

KIC_By-Age.jpg

Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

The second important finding from the poll is that there may be a distinctive identity forming around the People’s Party (국민의당). Frankly it is much too early to tell — the party is so underdeveloped that it barely has a website, and its official email address is a Gmail account — nevertheless, it does seem that Ahn Cheol-soo and his team are capable of attracting a centrist constituency. As the bar chart below shows, whereas there is nothing to choose between the heartfelt antipathy of supporters of the Justice Party (정의당) and the main opposition Minjoo Party (더불어 민주당), the position of People’s Party supporters, at least on the Kaesong shutdown issue, is distinctive. This may or may not prove that an apparatchik monitors the party’s online message board, since there the first — and most energetically discussed — topic is precisely this: Should the People’s Party  “inherit the Sunshine Policy in its original form”? If the party wishes to retain a unique political character, it would appear that it should not.

KIC_By-Party.jpg

Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

Caveats to all this data do, as ever, apply. The poll is unquestionably guilty of prompting a focusing illusion among its 500 respondents. No matter what people may say now, there is little chance of the Kaesong shutdown being a serious issue at the ballot box come April’s elections — at least, not as things stand. It does rather depend on what the opposition parties do with the political opportunity the administration has just handed them by summarily halting operations at Kaesong — and whether North Korea chooses to take it lying down2)As an aside, regionalism emerges strongly over the Kaesong issue. As one might expect, residents of Daegu and North Gyeongsang are very much in favor of the shutdown, while residents of Gwangju and Jeolla Province are very much not. People in Seoul, as well as Busan, Ulsan and surrounding areas, are opposed, but not by a great deal, and vice versa for Daejeon and Chungcheong Province..

Source: Kim Seong-gon, “Total shutdown of Kaesong Complex, ‘Well done’ 47.5% vs ‘A mistake’ 44.3%” [개성공단 전면중단, ‘잘했다’ 47.5% vs ‘잘못했다’ 44.3%], EDaily, February 12, 2016. Translation and graphics by Christopher Green.

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1. This is a summary of the source, not a direct translation.
2. As an aside, regionalism emerges strongly over the Kaesong issue. As one might expect, residents of Daegu and North Gyeongsang are very much in favor of the shutdown, while residents of Gwangju and Jeolla Province are very much not. People in Seoul, as well as Busan, Ulsan and surrounding areas, are opposed, but not by a great deal, and vice versa for Daejeon and Chungcheong Province.