Data Suggests Ethno-nationalism on Decline

By | September 17, 2013 | No Comments

The latest data shows the diverging perceptions of North Korea among South Korea's different age groups. | Image: Asan Institute for Policy Studies

Data shows the diverging perceptions of North Korea among South Korea’s different age groups. | Image: Asan Institute for Policy Studies

Given that Koreans of both countries are of “one blood” (tanilminkjok; 단일민족), many see ethno-nationalism as theoretical underpinning to the idea that “reunification by choice” will eventually take place if “reunification by collapse” does not. However, the latest in public opinion surveys provide data that necessitates a re-thinking of this long held view.  A newfound confidence in South Korea may be contributing to the erosion of ethno-nationalism.

The image above shows a breakdown of South Koreans that view North Korea as “one of us” (uri ; 우리) by age cohort from 2011 to 2013. There are several points to be made here. The most obvious observation is that in 2012, the high-water mark for the data thus far, slightly less than one-third of all South Koreans viewed North Koreans as “one of us.” This connection is often said to make reunification inevitable, but one-third hardly seems like a large enough slice of the population to support such a claim. Moreover, in 2012 South Koreans were equally likely to cite North Korea simply as a neighbor, and 19 percent identified it as an enemy. The most recent data, however, suggests that empathy for North Korea as one of us is on the decline, and with it is North Korea’s capacity to affect South Korean domestic politics in a way favorable to Pyongyang.

The interference in South Korea’s domestic politics by North Korea in a way that produces an environment more suitable for the North, usually in the form of a provocation during the run-up to an election, has been a subject of curiosity and inquiry. Referred to as the Northern Winds, the ability for North Korea to alter South Korea’s domestic politics has been a strategy used by Pyongyang since the division of the peninsula.

In addition to creating “south-south conflict” (namnamgaldeung; 남남갈등), some have argued that North Korean provocations actually result in more North-friendly policies. The logic goes something like this: a provocation will elicit a hard(er)-line approach from Seoul. Because the people have a deeper affinity to those of the “same blood” than they do to the state, this hard-line approach elicits a strong domestic backlash against a population whose puts the nation before the state (intentionally discarding the hyphen), eventually giving rise to “pro-Pyongyang-ism.” The data from 2011 to 2012 would seem to support this line of thinking. Following the provocations of 2010, President Lee Myung-bak took a much harder-line approach to North Korea than did his immediate predecessors. After his policies took hold in 2011, they led to an increased likelihood of North Korea being viewed as “one of us.”

But the data does not stop in 2012. The inclusion of the 2013 data suggests that South Koreans were not reacting to the hardline policy of the Lee administration, but rather to the lack of provocations in 2011 and 2012. When there was a further provocation in 2013, South Korean public opinion turned sharply against North Korea. Two conclusions can be inferred from this data: 1) the Northern Winds have died; and 2) that South Koreans have let go of their ethno-nationalism from times past and replaced it with a nationalism that puts more faith in the government in Seoul.

The last point revealed by the data is just how differently South Koreans in their 20s view North Korea. In each year they were the cohort least likely to cite North Korea as being “one of us,” and from 2011 to 2012 there was only a 5pp increase. In fact, in 2012 this cohort was more likely to cite North Korea as an enemy (24 percent). Among all other cohorts, this increase averaged 12pp. Following the heightened inter-Korean tensions in the first quarter of 2013, their collective skepticism was confirmed, and positive views of North Korea collapsed, not only for those in their 20s but across all age cohorts.

Although it may worry advocates of unification and concern those covering the rise of traditional forms of nationalism in the region, South Koreans see themselves differently now. The rise of a new national identity in South Korea is worth tracking.

Source: Public Opinion Data, 2011-2013, Public Opinion Studies Center, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Used with Permission.

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  1. The translation “one blood” for “tanil minkjok” (단일민족) is wrong. The word “tanil” means single/unitary, and “minjok” means nation/people/race. Please do not mislead your readers.

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