Yongusil 34: KEI Panel on Public Opinion in South Korea
Having emerged as a “middle power” with the requisite power to shape its regional and international environment, South Korea struggles to reconcile competing national goals. Chief among those goals is the Korean desire to influence its neighbors—namely Japan and China—into complying with its national interests and the strategic need to comply with theirs.
South Korean foreign policy, whether from the executive or legislative branches, is intensely affected by public opinion, as the 2012 public backlash to the proposed Japan-South Korea General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) proves. Meanwhile, those residing outside the peninsula may find it difficult to track the changes and variations in public opinion that both respond to and help to shape foreign policy initiatives. Fortunately, two recent reports released by the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI) in Washington, DC, help those outside the peninsula keep a finger on the pulse of South Korean attitudes. The publication of the respective reports coincided with a panel hosted at KEI on May 8, 2014.
Karl Friedhoff, program officer at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul, offers valuable data and analysis in the first paper of this panel. The data comes from part of the Asan-commissioned weekly and daily polling efforts of the think tank’s public opinion department. This report examines South Korean attitudes toward the US rebalance strategy (termed in the survey as “increased US attention to Asia”) in context of South Korean attitudes toward its neighbors.
As it is presented in the paper, the United States remains the nation with the highest favorability rating by far (pushing 6.0 on a 10-point scale); but South Korean views of China, Japan, and North Korea are much more complicated. China in particular presents a problem for South Korea: as the data reveals, while China is seen as a strong economic partner, its role as a security partner (or threat) is unclear to South Koreans. Another noteworthy point is increasingly negative views of Japan. In 2012, favorability of Japan (2.7 points) dipped below favorability of North Korea (3.3 points).
While this report only reveals a snapshot of opinions from 2012, additional data available at Asan could easily round out trend analysis for others, as it did for Friedhoff and Sino-NK’s Steven Denney in an October 2013 PacNet publication on South Korean nationalism.
In the second paper on the panel, Professors Thomas P. Dolan, Kyle Christensen, and Kimberly Gill set out to examine generational differences in attitudes toward Korean unification and US military presence on the peninsula. Also using opinion surveys as their source material, their poll was conducted using convenience sampling of about 200 respondents at universities, mass transit centers, and other similarly crowded locations in city centers. Their data offers some useful evidence that could inform future investigations.
Based on the survey’s findings, when all age cohorts are taken in aggregate, most South Koreans seem to believe unification will occur within twenty years. The authors also argue that age also has an effect on feelings toward US military presence in South Korea, presumably based on lived-through versus reported historical experiences.
Public perspectives on regional political, economic, and social ties cannot be overlooked. Unfortunately, data is in short supply for the latest developments. The efforts of those mentioned above, much like the efforts of Sino-NK’s “Jangmadang,” seek to show the intersection between popular opinion and regional relationships. Pending new research outputs based on sound research methodology and grounded analysis, public opinion surveys and popular media exegesis can add much needed insight to the study of transnational ties.