Focusing Illusions: ROK Opinion Polling and the North Korea Lens

By | January 19, 2016 | No Comments

Graph showing those who feel a sense of "security anxiety" (either "very" anxious or "somewhat" anxious) between 2000 and 2010. The peak (81.5%) comes just after North Korea's shelling of Yeongpyeong Island in December (2010). | Image: East Asia Institute (EAI)

Graph showing those who report feeling a sense of “security anxiety” (either “very” anxious or “somewhat” anxious) at a range of junctures between 2000 and 2010. The peak (81.5%) comes just after North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, the low is immediately after the first inter-Korean summit. | Image: East Asia Institute (EAI)

In response to my January 16 column at The Diplomat, “Young South Koreans’ Realpolitik Attitude Towards the North,” Christopher Green argues that analyzing recent changes and variations in national identity and political attitudes through opinion polling on North Korea is problematic. Channeling the work of Daniel Kahneman et al. on “focusing illusions,” Green makes a case for looking elsewhere. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Focusing Illusions: ROK Opinion Polling and the North Korea Lens

by Christopher Green

It may well be that “beneath the ambivalence and hidden in the shoulder shrugs” of the responses of South Korean youth voters to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test last week there lies an increasingly hawkish attitude toward the DPRK. Our own Steven Denney thinks so, and trend lines suggest the same. Arguably so does common sense, given that the recent era in inter-Korean relations has seen three nuclear tests (2009, 2013, 2016), the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan (2010), and the shelling of a South Korean island in the West Sea (also 2010). However, it is too much to try and link this to the emergence of a new form of “South Korean nationalism.”

Yet this is Denney’s claim. Citing a 2011 source in one of his recent Diplomat pieces, he points to a decline in support for the sentiment that the people of North Korea are “one of us,” “neighbor,” or “brother” to South Korea, the three positive forms of identification on offer, and evidence of rising support for negative identifiers: North Korea as “an other” and “an enemy.”

He also quotes a much more recent release from the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies, which asserts that people in their 20s are “far more conservative when it comes to North Korea than are those currently in their thirties and forties.” According to the report in question, underpinning this conservatism is a vision of North Korea that defines the country in terms of “war, military, and nuclear weapons,” “dictatorship,” and “poverty and famine.”

That North Korea has a serious image problem is hardly news. But the assertion here is far more significant than that. The claim is that we are seeing a fundamental shift in opinion of North Korea amidst the emergence of a new type of Korean nationalism. This “new nationalism” is one driven not by an ethnic affinity to the Korean nation, but by an affinity for South Korea alone. In other words, it is a shift toward “South Korean nationalism” and it is being propelled, at least partially, by rising hawkishness toward the North.

Evidencing the Claim: Opinion Polls | The roots of such a bold claim lie in noteworthy distinctions that exist between age groups in the South. Writ large, South Koreans in their 30s and 40s have long evidenced a more empathetic view of North Korea than both the older generation — hardly surprising given the lives many of them have lived — and the generation now coming of age — meaning, roughly speaking, people between 19 and 29 at the time of writing. This latter fact is the one held up as evidencing the emergence of the new “South Korean nationalism.”

However, there is cause for circumspection. While the polling data does indeed seem to reflect reality, the role of North Korea in the development of “South Korean nationalism” is unclear. In Gallup Korea’s weekly summary of daily opinion polls for the period following North Korea’s nuclear test on January 6, youthful indifference to North Korea is far more in evidence than outright antipathy. The public, including the young, apparently felt less endangered by the January 6 test than the third such test in 2013, and moreover were less inclined to support South Korean nuclearization this time around — despite a big uptick in column inches devoted to proposing exactly that (here in English and here in Korean).

At 61 percent, the public’s sense of danger as a result of the test is markedly lower than at the time of North Korea’s third test in 2013, when it was measured at 76 percent. The sense of danger among the younger cohort is relatively higher, at 62 percent, than for those in their 30s (53%), but the overall trend for all groups is declining.

Support for the idea that South Korea should acquire its own nuclear deterrent has also declined since the third North Korean nuclear test in 2013. In a poll conducted at that time, 64 percent of people supported the need for South Korea to go nuclear, with 28 percent against. The January 2016 poll results show respective figures of 54 percent and 38 percent, a considerable decline. Not only that: the youth are actually the least enthusiastic, with just 36 percent supporting South Korean nuclearization against 57 percent who oppose it. Tellingly, 47 percent of people in their 30s support South Korean nuclearization — a difference of 11 percent. The numbers rise further through each age cohort, reflecting the established — and universal — tendency of people to become more conservative with age.

At a minimum, this reveals that young South Korean people tend to be indifferent to North Korea and the danger(s) that it poses. We can hypothesize as to why this should be. Among the more compelling is the idea that the Sunshine Policy had an unexpected outcome: it “de-bordered” North Korea for the young of South Korea. Thus, it offered a glimpse inside the Workers’ Paradise, and, unsurprisingly, most were not attracted by what they saw. As a consequence, given that it is now thought not to pose a substantive threat (“poverty and famine” are not threatening identifiers), North Korea can now be ignored by the young in favor of other, far more pressing concerns of young people across the developed world: jobs, housing, childhood education, etc.

A Pinch of Salt: Focusing Illusions | To some, the fact that the average young South Korean mostly ignores North Korea indicates a suicidal failure to attend to very real national security concerns; to others it is a rational response to the banality of much of North Korea’s misbehavior. It is a source of endless confusion for lay outsiders. What it also means is that any poll asking questions about North Korean actions is highly unreliable.

Daniel Kahneman et al. explain why: “When people consider the impact of any single factor on their well-being… they are prone to exaggerate its importance.” In other words, if you happen to be thinking about a specific issue at a given time, it takes on outsize importance in all your judgements where it ordinarily would not. This is a focusing illusion. A typical example of this phenomenon in action concerns wealth: Poll someone about whether they think a wealthy person is happier than someone with less money, and wealth comes to be the decisive factor in determining happiness — at least in the answers the individual gives at that moment. Factors that are not generally entertained in the course of daily life can end up at the forefront of the mind at the stroke of a pollster’s pen.

It doesn’t take much to see that this can have an impact where polls concerning North Korea’s provocative actions are concerned, especially when the poll questions lack nuance. The first question asked about the North Korean test in the Gallup Korea poll is catastrophically blunt: “Recently, North Korea conducted its 4th nuclear test. Do you see this North Korean nuclear test as threatening to Korean peninsula peace, or not threatening?” When a question is asked in such a way, of course it will garner a response, and the likelihood is that most South Korean respondents would agree that a nuclear test is at least mildly endangering (although they may disagree as to why). After all, respondents are being asked to assess the threat posed by a nuclear test conducted in a nearby country with a track record of lethal actions against South Korea and a questionable dedication to nuclear safety. Needless to say, only 6 percent of the 1005 people polled in January 2016 said that they did not have an answer to the question at all.

If a focusing illusion impeded the polling process, as seems likely, we can hypothesize as follows: first, that the overall threat perception of South Korean people where North Korea is concerned is almost certainly far lower than any of the polls would suggest — especially during the lengthy periods of inactivity between provocative actions; and second, that politicians have far less to gain from engaging “the North Korea issue” in election campaigns than the polls — and the people analyzing them — would lead us to believe. Inter alia, this is bad news for those inheriting the legacy of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Ordinary young South Koreans just do not want to talk about Sunshine any more. Ahn Cheol-soo seems to understand this better than most on the left.

South Korean Nationalism: Looking Elsewhere | If a newly minted form of South Korean nationalism has come into being, it is most likely to be an outcome of factors unrelated to North Korea: for instance, the defining of South Korea’s role on the international stage. In Denney’s terms, young voters are becoming politically conscious at a time when South Korea is economically powerful and an influential actor internationally. In mine, “South Korea” is now defined by what it is rather than what it is not. It is not a unified cultural and political entity, sure, but for young people it never has been. To them, it is an export-led economy with a globally influential cultural sector. It has hosted a string of international events, starting with the Seoul Olympics of 1988 and encompassing the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup, the G20 Summit of 2010 and, in 2012, the 2nd Nuclear Security Summit. Soon it will include the 2018 Winter Olympics.

To the young, “South Korea” can also represent something deeply troubling. There is a negative flip side to the breakneck development that has thrust the country onto the world stage. Social schisms have grown more pronounced in the global financial crisis era of back-to-back conservative presidencies under Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye since 2008. Competing in a world in which economic activity measured at the level of the nation-state has only recently returned to pre-crisis levels, where wages and quality of life have not mirrored this aggregate recovery of economic activity, and where Chinese and Japanese economic policies have trapped the South Korean economy in a pincer movement from which it has so far been unable to escape, both Lee and Park have pursued policies that encourage labor flexibility as one of the most immediate means of reducing the cost of doing business in, with, and for South Korea. These global trends are the true wellspring of the Hell Chosun meme, but that’s by the by. What matters is that while it may be hell, it is a resolutely South Korean hell, and few of today’s young people speak of changing it through unification .

Successful television dramas like Misaeng (미생; tvN, 2014) and Assembly (어셈블리; KBS2, 2015), as well as the less popular Awl (송곳; JTBC, 2015), reflect this. South Korean drama producers, driven by the logic of modern broadcasting to represent the real anxieties and troubles of their young audiences on screen, have turned away from Korean unification. The de-bordered North Korea has lost its luster as an alternative to the South Korean economic and social model, on screen and off. Instead, the focus is on the nature of class relations in South Korea, wherein the divided state — rich and poor, conglomerates and SMEs, the young with good “spec” and the rest without — has taken on far greater importance than the divided peninsula and its fleeting moments of tension.

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