South Korea’s Identity Gap: Diverging Views on North Korea

By and | January 23, 2017 | No Comments

Ernest Gellner held that when the national and political unit are incongruent, the nationalist principal is violated. Politically different, how much longer can North and South Korea be considered the same nation? | Image: Steven Denney

Once upon a time, it was generally regarded as inevitable that the two Koreas would eventually reunify. Most people didn’t even imagine an alternative outcome. The political rhetoric between the regimes in Seoul and Pyongyang was delivered at very high velocity, most certainly, but that was proportional to the shared ethnic brotherhood that leaders in the two capitals knew would, if left recklessly untended, transcend the DMZ, a particularly artificial frontier construct in a world bursting with arbitrary post-colonial dividing lines.

Since the turn of the 21st century, however, the discussion has changed. Now it is possible to imagine the two Koreas never unifying. Lots of people are doing it. In part, this is because the people have changed. Recent and not-so-recent survey data suggest that a widely mooted identity and attitudinal gap within South Korea is getting inexorably wider. Young South Koreans are, for now, disinterested in unification and, indeed, see North Korea in the kind of terms that gives elites a free hand to maintain the status quo. In this essay, Phillip Lee1)Phillip Lee is a South Korean student attending the Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina. He currently lives in Seoul. and Steven Denney review the survey data and provide fresh evidence from qualitative interviews. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

South Korea’s Identity Gap: Diverging Views on North Korea

by Phillip Lee and Steven Denney

Based on public opinion data, South Koreans have consistently displayed mixed feelings towards North Korea. Data over the last five years suggest a new, and possibly lasting, trend: an increasingly realpolitik attitude towards the DPRK among South Korean youth. According to a January 2015 Asan Public Opinion Report on “South Korean Attitudes toward North Korea and Unification,” the time period between 2010 and 2014 reveals “youth detachment from North Korea” as “perhaps the most important recurring theme in public opinion data” during that time. In a 2013 CSIS PacNet article, Steven Denney and Karl Friedhoff argue that South Korean youth are becoming increasingly conservative on foreign policy issues, especially regarding South Korea’s policy towards the DPRK.

Youth Attitudes Towards North Korea: Survey Data Analysis | The latest wave of the Korean identity survey (2015) provides new grist for the mill. Answers to the question “How do you typically think of Korea” indicate that Asan and Denney and Friedhoff are indeed onto something. Of the five choices provided for answers — “one of us,” “brother,” neighbor,” “other,” and “enemy” – those which denote a sense of closeness based on ethnic or national affinity (one of us and brother) show significant variation across age cohorts, especially between the youngest cohort and everyone else.2)Respondents are asked for their first and second choices. Answers reported here are for choice one only. Only 13.8 percent of those ages 19-29 choose “one of us,” 10pp below the mean and the lowest for any age cohort. For “brother,” 15 percent of the youngest age cohort agreed, approximately five percent below the average and, again, the lowest for any age cohort.(See Figures 1 and 2 below.)

What makes these data findings more interesting is that those in the 19-29 age cohort are, alongside the 60s+ age cohort, the group who for whom the greatest number of respondents choose “enemy.” 19.3 percent of those in the youngest cohort see the DPRK this way, and 19.7 percent of South Korea’s oldest, and decidedly most conservative, agree. Notably, young South Koreans expressed the least amount of support for unification because “the (ethnic) Korean nation was once unified,”3)The wording, which reads “원래 한민족이었기 대문에,” employs the use of “민족,” a Korean word for “nation” that also doubles as “ethnicity” and sometimes “race.” This strongly suggests common ethnicity as the reason unification is desired. and constituted the group for whom the highest number of respondents said “unification is not at all necessary,” to the question “What do you think about unification?”4)Other possible answers included: Unification should come as quickly as possible (16.3%); unification should wait until the conditions are right (39.3%); and there is no need to rush unification (31.9%). (See Figures 3, 4, and 5 below.)

The reasons for young people’s indifference towards North Korea is due to several possible reasons. Having grown up in times of relative abundance, conditions in North Korea are less than ideal, and unification, projected to be an extraordinarily costly feat, is not likely to garner much support among an age cohort who is finding it increasingly difficult to find gainful employment. What’s more, the 19-29 age cohort has no living memory of division; while their parents or older peers do not either, the war which divided the peninsula is an even more distant event for South Korean youth. Thus, it is only natural for this group not to sympathize with those who take a softer stance on North Korea and more strongly support the unification of the Korean peninsula.

Instead, as the data indicate, no small number of South Korean youths view North Korea as their enemy. As they lack the memory of living in an undivided nation, youth views of North Korea are largely affected by North Korea’s actions. The current youth population of South Korea lives through North Korea’s regular threats of destruction and the occasional act of war (e.g., Cheonan sinking). Such events have more than likely impacted this cohort’s view of their neighbor to the north. As noted previously at Sino-NK, the 16.1 percent of those 19-29 who see North Korea as an enemy marks a 11.4pp increase from 2005.

Survey data, revealing though it is, only tells us so much. To better understand what the data means, we spoke with young Koreans over during the summer of 2016.

Youth Attitudes Towards North Korea: Interview Findings | Over the course of several months, we talked at length with six South Koreans in their early twenties or late teens, asking them several questions about North Korea. They were all college students from three different South Korean cities (Seoul, Busan, and Suwon) and one exchange student at the University of Toronto. The interviewees have different majors, ranging from chemical engineering to golf management.

When asked about their stance on the current South Korean policy towards North Korea, all interviewees agreed with former president Park’s slogan that unification would bring an economic bonanza.5)From the 2015 survey data, no less than 20 percent and no more than 23 percent agreed that unification would “promote economic growth.” One interviewee mentioned that since North Korea is not as developed as South Korea, unification would create job opportunities for Koreans living in both countries. This interviewee is a civil engineering major at a major South Korean university, and he stressed that for people in his profession, unification would definitely be a boon. Another interviewee said that not only would a unified Korea be able to produce better goods, because North Korean labor and South Korean technology would complement each other, but unification would bring a greater advantage for him personally. The interviewee’s father owns a construction company, which would benefit greatly from access to large tracts of undeveloped land in North Korea. Responses to this question corroborates the claim that South Koreans are adopting a more rational attitude towards North Korea and unification. While older generations often reason that unification is necessary for non-economic reasons, younger South Koreans view unification through a more rational lens.

Regarding current South Korean efforts to send economic aid to North Korea, interviewees disagreed. One interviewee stated that it was a waste of resources, especially because it isn’t effective in preventing North Korean aggressions, such as the Cheonan sinking or Yeonpyeong Island shelling. On the other hand, one interviewee said that South Korean aid to North Korea shouldn’t be stopped on humanitarian grounds; however, the interviewee was quick to add that such efforts should be carefully calibrated, given the precarious economic situation in South Korea. Another interviewee responded that aid should not be stopped, even if North Korea instigates another armed conflict. This interviewee said that putting a halt to all aid sent to North Korea might give it an excuse to wage war, thus economic aid is South Korea’s price for peace – and one well worth it.

We also asked interviewees what comes to mind first when they think of North Korea. Most of the interviewees responded with “war.” Male interviewees talked about mandatory conscription and how it was impossible not to link North Korea with war. All interviewees indicated, in one way or another, that North Korea affects the upbringing and life-cycle of every male South Korean, because the precarious North-South relationship justifies, and arguably necessitates, mandatory military service. Several of the interviewees added that North Korea’s aggressive behavior towards the South over the last decade has affected the environment young South Koreans grow up in and shaped a negative image of the DPRK in the minds of South Korean youth.

Questions about North Korean migrants were also asked. All interviewees agreed that South Korea should accept migrants who left North Korea. They all indicated that migrants must have lived through traumatic experiences in North Korea, which was why they were forced to flee their country. Knowing that these migrants took extreme measures to escape, the interviewees all agreed that we must respect their decision and should be aware that they are in a difficult situation as settlers in a new country.

To put things into a regional geopolitical context, we had interviewees to rank China, USA, Japan, and North Korea by personal affinity. USA was ranked first by every respondent. Their reasons were that South Korea is dependent on the US militarily. North Korea was usually placed last, and never placed higher than third. The two lowest ranked countries were North Korea and Japan. The reason Japan was ranked low by the interviewees was because of the contentious history between South Korea and Japan. However, the fact that North Korea was ranked similar to Japan suggests that North Korea is either no longer considered as part of the nation (minjok). Reasons for ranking North Korea low had mainly to do with lack of understanding – young South Koreans simply don’t know what to make of North Korea. It is, in other words, just another country. The interviewees also pointed out that since South Korea is still technically at war with North Korea, there is no reason to rank it highly.

Conclusion | Seventy years have passed since the division of the Korean peninsula. The seven-decade long division has seen the two countries take very different political and economic paths. Coupled with the lack of interaction and communication between the two peoples, it would not be entirely wrong to say that the two Koreas have developed different national identities. The notion of a shared ethnocultural identity and past are seemingly too abstract, especially for young South Koreans. We may not have sufficient data to prove definitely yet, but it stands to reason that South Korea’s youngest generation has taken a new, and decidedly more aggressive stance on North Korea.

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1. Phillip Lee is a South Korean student attending the Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina. He currently lives in Seoul.
2. Respondents are asked for their first and second choices. Answers reported here are for choice one only.
3. The wording, which reads “원래 한민족이었기 대문에,” employs the use of “민족,” a Korean word for “nation” that also doubles as “ethnicity” and sometimes “race.” This strongly suggests common ethnicity as the reason unification is desired.
4. Other possible answers included: Unification should come as quickly as possible (16.3%); unification should wait until the conditions are right (39.3%); and there is no need to rush unification (31.9%).
5. From the 2015 survey data, no less than 20 percent and no more than 23 percent agreed that unification would “promote economic growth.”