Righter Than You Think: National Security Conservatism and Moon Jae-in

By and | April 03, 2018 | No Comments

Moon Jae-in at the 2017 presidential inauguration ceremony. | Image: Wikicommons

As North and South Korea continue reciprocal cultural visits and we all wait with bated breath for the inter-Korean summit scheduled for later this month, peninsula-watchers must also consider the political mood in South Korea. Steven Denney and Christopher Green, senior editors at Sino-NK, remind us in this apt analysis of South Korean public opinion that President Moon Jae-in’s policy toward the North is not the Sunshine Policy of his progressive forebears. In fact, it is marked with a certain timbre of conservatism that takes into account the political and military developments north of the DMZ as well as the changing attitudes among South Korean constituents.

Denney and Green’s analysis of public opinion trends is another example of the terms of the political divide in South Korea. While domestic economic welfare and social issues are important to domestic politics, policy toward North Korea is not only a national security issue but also an extremely salient political one, one which leaders on both sides of Korea’s political aisle must tread with care. — Darcie Draudt, Senior Editor

Righter Than You Think: National Security Conservatism and Moon Jae-in

by Steven Denney and Christopher Green

Following many months of high tension and uncertainty as to whether there might be renewed military conflict on the Korean peninsula in 2017, the change of tone and content since Kim Jong-un made his public overture to the Moon Jae-in on January 1 has been most welcome, especially to people living in South Korea (and presumably also in the North, though their views are harder to access).

Public opinion polls conducted following Kim’s summit invitation to Moon showed a welcome reception. One Kyunghyang Sinmun poll showed 69 percent of respondents approving of a North-South summit, and 69.1% believing that inter-Korean relations would improve going forward. A Korea Society Opinion Institute poll (KSOI; 한국사회여론연구소) put overall summit approval even higher, at 77.4 percent.

The verdict is clear: the people welcomed Moon’s advances to the North. It seems that South Korea is ready to give peace and engagement another go after a decade of conservative rule marked by active efforts to isolate, undermine and shame North Korea. However, one thing that it does not mean is a return to the Sunshine Policy of yore. Support for détente, though doubtless music to Moon’s ears, doesn’t mean what it meant the last time a liberal administration engaged Pyongyang.

The aforementioned KSOI poll shows that less than half of all respondents said North Korea should be met without any preconditions, and about 50 percent of all respondents agreed that if North Korea would not agree to a nuclear freeze or dismantlement of its weapons, there would be no point in meeting at all. This qualification to South Koreans’ support for engagement underscores an important, and (in English) often overlooked, point about South Korean political culture: it is quite “conservative” on issues related to national-security.

Poll showing that 77.4% of 1,000 respondents approve of a North-South summit. | Image: Sino-NK screenshot of KSOI data visual

Conservative Campaigning: Moon Jae-in and National Security | There is no doubt Moon was aware of the national security conservatism as he campaigned for the presidency in the first half of 2017. Candidate Moon and his more astute advisors will have seen that the days of a financially generous North Korea policy were not going to return whether they wished it or not.

Quite the opposite. Though he was odds-on favorite to win in the face of greatly weakened opposition, and moreover knew that pocket-book concerns would be dominant at the ballot box, Moon could ill-afford to be blasé on national defense. Few people will vote for a candidate who they believe is set on selling out their country to the enemy. Deep-seated concerns erupted onto the political surface over Moon’s apparent wish to consult Pyongyang prior to a 2007 UN vote on a North Korean human rights resolution, from which South Korea ultimately abstained. This showed just how easily Moon could get tangled up in his own controversial history.

In response, Moon carved out a viable position on the hot-button defense issue of the campaign, the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. Two months before polling day, Moon had come around to supporting the deployment, whilst adroitly kicking the controversial can of whether to agree to pay for it in the direction of the National Assembly. Over the summer, a string of North Korean missile tests made the decision self-explanatory, and opposition largely withered.

Once safely ensconced in the Blue House, Moon sought to build on his momentum and ensure that he could not be accused of weakness. To this end, he picked a former admiral, Song Young-moo, to run the Ministry of National Defense and provide “unwavering national security amid the grave situation both at home and abroad.” Moon also asked Chung Eui-yong, an experienced diplomat and committed multilateralist to be his National Security Adviser (and, latterly, to provide shuttle diplomacy services between Pyongyang and other regional capitals). Moon also made the most of his first official visit to Washington, actively seeking to manage the ROK-US alliance and burnish his pro-American credentials by visiting a memorial to the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, a fierce Korean War confrontation between US and Chinese troops in late 1950 that bought time for the Hungnam Evacuation to take place, which in turn brought Moon’s own parents to South Korea.

With his (eventual) acceptance of THAAD deployment, conservative choice of government ministers, and adroit diplomacy with the US, Moon successfully undermined the classic narrative of the South Korean left as untrustworthy on national security. At the same time, he deflected what looked at the time like a credible electoral challenge from the People’s Party candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo. Guided by a loose agglomeration of former Kim Dae-jung presidency officials, the People’s Party had sought to distinguish itself from Moon’s much larger Democratic Party in part by adopting a strict position on national security.

The fact that Moon needed urgently to address questions of national security shows just how much South Korean society has changed since the turn of the century and North Korea’s transmogrification from famine-ridden backwater to nuclear-armed foe.

Conservative Foundations: National Security and Popular Opinion | The trend toward national security conservatism in South Korean public opinion is fairly well-established. At Sino-NK, we have explored the “national security conservative” thesis regarding South Korean political culture before. We have noted that younger South Koreans coming of age in the post-sunshine policy era hold conservative attitudes regarding national security and North-South relations, contra what one typically thinks about youth. We also note that the ideology of anti-Communism is strongly entrenched in South Korea.

A conservative attitude regarding national security, noteworthy when found in the young, is prevalent throughout South Korean society and across political divides. It is a consequence of the geopolitical and general security environment in Northeast Asia. This predisposition is shown in public opinion data from the 2015 East Asia Institute national identity survey (한국인의 정체성 조사), which explores attitudes on relevant items for more than 1,000 respondents. Responses to relevant questions show just how conservative South Korean society is at present.

Asked whether the controversial National Security Law (NSL; 국가보안법) should be “maintained as it is” or needs to be “reformed or repealed,” a vast majority of respondents (63.2%) said keep the course and maintain the law as is. Viewed by political identification, 48.5 percent of progressives want the law changed or scrapped, whereas only 27.5 percent of conservatives agree. However, centrists (voters crucial to any electoral coalition) lean relatively more towards the conservative position (62.4% want to keep the NSL; 37.6% say change it). It is particularly noteworthy that more than half of all respondents who self-identify as progressive (51.5%) think the law should be maintained in its existing form. Whilst outsiders often criticize the NSL for its active repression of certain sorts of political speech, South Koreans are far less likely to do the same. In 2012, former leftist revolutionary and current anti-North activist, Kim Young-hwan caused a stir in South Korea when he made a rare public call for the abolition of the most controversial article in the NSL, Article 7.

n=1006; error bars represent 95% confidence intervals | Image: Sino-NK

On a less politicized measure, respondents are asked whether having a strong military is necessary in order to survive in the international order (국제사회에서 살아남기 위해서는 군사력이 강해야 한다). There is little doubt that South Koreans think this is necessary, as 85.1 percent agree. Viewed across the political spectrum, there is little disagreement. Progressives are less enthusiastic, but only slightly, with 79.6 percent saying it isn’t necessary.1)Unfortunately, there is no comparative data on this question in the International Social Survey Programme’s national identity questionnaire, from which East Asia Institute’s is derived. It stands to reason that data trends similar to South Korea will be found in other societies, especially those in less-than-friendly geopolitical environments or those with a history of having a strong military (e.g., Taiwan, United States). In a separate question, respondents were asked whether South Korea should possess nuclear weapons (우리나라도 핵무기를 보유해야 한다). A sizeable majority (71%) agreed. Agreement only decreases minimally when looked at across political identification. 72.1 percent of conservatives think South Korea should go nuclear to 67.5 percent of progressives. The move, in other words, transcends political partisanship.2)Notably, when asked whether North Korea’s nuclear weapons problem will be a danger 10 years from now, less than 10 percent said they wouldn’t (60.6 percent said “very dangerous” and 33.9 percent said “moderately dangerous”). It is reasonable to interpret support for South Korean going nuclear as a response to the nuclear threat posed by the North, and doubts about the effectiveness of the US nuclear umbrella.

n=1006; error bars represent 95% confidence intervals | Image: Sino-NK

Public opinion on key indicators and liberal government actions in response to their own internal assessments of electoral weakness lend weight to the hypothesis that national security conservatism is now the norm in South Korea. Driven by a bipartisan coalition of young and old, nobody knows whether the trend even can be reversed, much less whether it should be; much will depend on North Korea’s choices in the years to come. The electorate will take a lot of persuading, certainly, and a single quarter of goodwill plus active North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics is not going to be sufficient to move the needle after almost a decade of hostility and deadly acts of aggression.

This article was amended on April 4, 2018.

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1. Unfortunately, there is no comparative data on this question in the International Social Survey Programme’s national identity questionnaire, from which East Asia Institute’s is derived. It stands to reason that data trends similar to South Korea will be found in other societies, especially those in less-than-friendly geopolitical environments or those with a history of having a strong military (e.g., Taiwan, United States).
2. Notably, when asked whether North Korea’s nuclear weapons problem will be a danger 10 years from now, less than 10 percent said they wouldn’t (60.6 percent said “very dangerous” and 33.9 percent said “moderately dangerous”). It is reasonable to interpret support for South Korean going nuclear as a response to the nuclear threat posed by the North, and doubts about the effectiveness of the US nuclear umbrella.

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