Post-Sunshine South Korea is sober, pragmatic, and grouchy.

In this post last week, I cited polling data showing how South Koreans’ views of North Korea have hardened in recent years, representing a dramatic swing since the fervent anti-Americanism and pro-appeasement sentiment of the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun years. I reckoned that the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks were the tipping point in this shift, but a wealth of polling data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project changes my mind about this. I wish the data directly measured South Koreans’ views of North Korea, but they do measure other indicators that turn out to have a logical relationship to them.

In the decade between 2003 (the height of the anti-American wave) and 2013, the polls tell us that South Koreans’ views shifted steadily toward what we usually associate with “conservative” views — their opinion of the U.S. became 32% more favorable, unfavorable views of the U.S. fell 30% to just 20% in 2013, and 15% more South Koreans believed that the U.S. considers their country’s interests “a great deal” or “a fair amount” in making international policy decisions.

Between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of South Koreans viewing the U.S. as a “partner” as opposed to an “enemy” rose 18%, from just 51% to 69%. Between 2002 and 2013, favorable views of China fell 20%, to 46% (up from the 2010 nadir of just 38%). Very few South Koreans see China’s growing military power as “a good thing.” About a quarter of South Koreans view China as an enemy, but that figure has hardly shifted since 2008, when it was first measured.

The results I had really hoped to show you come from a poll by the Asan Institute, which I’d picked up as a paper booklet at a conference last summer. The poll gave a detailed generational breakdown on South Korean attitudes toward the North, and showed that Koreans in their 20’s were the most conservative age group in two generations. That’s immensely relevant; unfortunately, I’ve managed to lose the pamphlet in one of my stacks of paper, and I can’t find the results online, so you’ll have to settle for the next best thing — this report from Asan’s Kim Jiyoon, which shows us the same image in lower resolution:

When examined by age group, there is an interesting but consistent tendency. The young generation of South Korea exhibits conservative attitudes toward national security issues. They are quite a different species from the young generation ten years ago. Conventionally, a conservative South Korean tends to be hostile and assertive toward North Korea and friendly toward the United States. Much like those who are in their sixties, a disproportionate number of the youngest generation of Korea chose to support the United States (64.8%) in the hypothetical match against North Korea. This is the second highest proportion following the oldest generation’s support 72.8 percent. The most ethnically bound generation was in their forties—the so-called 386 generation. 

Surprisingly, most of this shift occurred between 2007 and 2009. The trend was underway before the election of Barack Obama, the Cheonan Incident, the Yeonpyeong Incident, the killing of Park Wang-Ja and the closure of Kumgang, or any of the events Americans might be tempted to think catalyzed this trend. It’s more likely that a steady stream of evidence gradually undermined the grandiose and wishful unifictions of the Korean left. The incidents of 2010 were not the cause of the shift, but probably solidified it just as people were growing tired of Lee Myung Bak, and prepared to listen to criticism of his policies.

There is also evidence that the Yeonpyeong attack shook off many South Koreans’ disbelief that North Korea sank the CheonanThis report by the International Crisis group cites a poll showing that Yeonpyeong attack convinced 17.7% of South Koreans that North Korea sank the Cheonan.* It’s human nature to view evidence as self-affirming, and I suppose plenty more South Koreans who were at least willing to entertain Cheonan conspiracy theories before Yeonpyeong decided, after the event, that they knew all along that North Korea did it. And overwhelmingly, they wanted to hit North Korea back.

The data suggest a zero-sum ideological contest between North Korea and the United States. The good news is that the contest has shifted away from North Korea lately (I care much less whether it shifted toward us). The bad news is that the shift is more a withdrawal of interest, of investment, of hope, and of fear. It does not look forward to reunification and has no desire to hasten it. It is the grouchy hangover that follows intoxication. I have no quarrel with pragmatism; it’s the selective apathy I can’t stand. And young Koreans are as blindly nationalistic as their elders, despite their immersion in the global culture.

The rejection of appeasement in its most masochistic forms, in a favor of a more rational, interest-based calculus, should not be confused with a complete rejection of inter-Korean exchanges or dialogue. It especially should not be confused with affection for the United States, or for the young, libidinous, and occasionally drunken American soldiers gallivanting around Seoul, Pyongtaek, and Uibongbu.** What it means is that South Koreans think they need us, and that the Sunshine fad is over.

Later this week, I’ll examine how South Korea’s changed media environment may have contributed to these changes, and why, even if the Democratic Party wins the next elections, it will be on a far more moderate platform than that of its predecessor, the Uri Party. It all sort of fits together. Trust me.

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This particular study also makes the mathematically impossible finding that 83.6% already believed that North Korea did it. The study concluded that South Koreas were moving to the left, but based this conclusion on a snapshot of public opinion during the second and third years of the Lee Administration, a point in the political cycle when voters usually grow disenchanted with the party in power. No wonder the study wrongly predicted a DP victory in the 2012 election.

** Except me, of course. I’m sure I was a lot nicer than the other drunken, libidinous young soldiers.

Update, Feb. 10:

Many thanks to Steven Denney for providing two links to studies relevant to this post. The headline is that ethno-nationalism is on the decline in Korea, but when I read the actual texts, I’m more inclined to think that the character of Korea’s ethno-nationalism has changed from generation to generation. Nationalism is no longer seen in explicitly political terms that militate union with the North. Instead, the younger generation invests its national pride in the South Korean nation, rather than in the Korean race. Says CSIS:

Koreans have begun to view themselves and their republic in a way that reflects political, social, and economic realities. Korea’s new nationalism is based less on 

ethnicity than previous strands of nationalism, views the state with an increasing level of confidence, and presumes that South Korea is on the rise in East Asia and the world. …

The 2013 data makes it clear that the South Korean public judges North Korea on its actions, with public opinion turning sharply against the North following tensions in early 2013. Of course, if North Korea can become a responsible neighbor, attitudes would improve. The question is if the North can achieve this before the youngest South Koreans decide that they, and their country, are better off seeing the Republic of Korea as a completely separate political and national entity. In 2012, while 11 percent of those in their 60s expressed no interest in reunification, 23 percent of those in their 20s stated the same. Notably, it was those in their 20s (60 percent) who were most in favor of reunification on South Koreans terms, indicating a less accepting and less tolerant attitude toward the North. …

The most important point to make is how sharply South Koreans in their 20s have broken in their views of North Korea with those in their 30s and 40s. In 2011 and 2012, those in their 20s were the least likely to identify the North Korea as “one of us.” Indeed, in 2012 this cohort was more likely to define the North as an enemy (24 percent). Following heightened inter-Korean tensions in the first quarter of 2013, the response “one of us” decreased by 9 percentage points.

I suppose if push came to shove, it would still be a case of “my brother and me against my cousin, my cousin and me against the stranger.” And I would hesitate to conclude that we’re seeing the emergence of a post-racial Korea. Still, we’ve at least seen the decline of an explicitly political racism in South Korea, something that disgusted me enough to inspire the very creation of this site. That is good news, because political racism never ends well.

Young South Koreans were also more confident in their country than their elders, and more resolute in the face of North Korea provocations. I can’t help thinking that insecurity is often the root of nationalism in its most extreme forms.


  1. Hi Joshua,

    The variation in political attitudes and (national) identity is surely something to behold in South Korea. For nearly all age cohorts, but especially the youngest, there is a detectable shift, sustained over time. The World Values Survey (WVS), run out of the University of Michigan, with principal investigators in all major countries (including South Korea), can help put some of these trends in broader, timed series perspective (30 years, to be exact). Something worth uncovering there, methinks.

    As for the rise of “national security conservatives” among young-ins, it is interesting and somewhat paradoxical that faith and trust in the American security guarantee is rising/has risen alongside attitudes about South Korea being an independent, wealthy, and influential country. Or maybe it isn’t all that paradoxical? It could be considered quite rational to favor stability and survival, even if it means dependence on someone else. In addition to a decline in “pro-Pyongyangism”/Northern Winds, there is also a decline in ethnic-based nationalism. Dr. Kim had a very good article about that at the New Asan Forum [online].

    In any case, I think the chart you are looking for is reproduced in this article I wrote with the Asan Institute’s Karl Friedhoff late last year at PacNet: Alternatively, see another related post that reproduces the same chart here (better quality, I think):

    I look forward to more posts on this subject.

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