North Korea policy in the South Korean election: what (little) the data tell us

What exit polling data I do have come to us from the Asan Institute. And while Asan’s analysis contains much interesting information that political types would call “internals,” it doesn’t tell us all that much about voters’ attitudes about North Korea policy. The first thing it tells us is that North Korea didn’t really weigh much on the minds of voters at all, compared to economic issues.

I wonder whether you’d see more concern among Americans about the North Korean threat if you took a poll here. South Koreans have become practiced and skilled at ignoring the North Korea problem over the years.

Our only “rare glimpse” of voter opinion on security issues comes in this surprising finding that almost by 60-40, the voters still want THAAD. That’s a surprising result given Donald Trump’s ham-handed demands that South Korea pay for it on the eve of the election. Frankly, I’d have expected something closer to the opposite result. That suggests that any plans Moon has to pass legislation in the National Assembly reversing the deployment of the system (which is now operational) could run into trouble.

Another glimpse comes from recent data, which I discussed here, showing that Xi Jinping’s unilateral sanctions against South Korea have caused a rise in anti-China sentiment, while pro-U.S. sentiment is high, and pro-North Korea sentiment isn’t. The political environment in South Korea is nothing like 2002, although I suppose that most South Koreans would probably favor some form of engagement and oppose confrontational policies in the abstract. I’m sure the administration’s war talk makes them nervous (me too).

To delve deeper into South Koreans’ views, I had to go back to 2015, because the 2016 version of this poll wouldn’t download. That poll was taken after Park’s handling the 2015 land mine incident, but before Park closed Kaesong (at least permanently). At first glance, this graph suggests that the softer line wins plurality support. But if one assumes that voters perceived Park’s policy as hard-line, and if you combine the status quo and pro-hard-line figures, you see that at that time, a majority of South Koreans who had an opinion wanted a North Korea policy that was as tough or tougher than Park’s.

Indeed, as I’ve noted before, Park’s North Korea policy was about the only thing voters liked about her. I’d say that goes for me, too (always has) although unlike most South Koreans, I don’t have to work Saturdays, stay out late drinking with my boss, or watch him promote his incompetent college classmates ahead of me. Not surprisingly, then, I differ from most South Koreans on which issue that concerns me.

The data mostly support what I said yesterday: despite voters’ fatigue with the political right, and their desire to punish it for Park Geun-hye’s sins, they are uneasy about the security situation and wary of a lowering their guard. Moon hedged carefully on THAAD, and he’s begun to hedge on Kaesong, too. He’s a smart enough politician to continue to hedge if he senses that he can’t push harder for policies he really prefers without losing political support. What Moon and those around him probably do prefer is where things take an alarming turn, but I’ll have to leave that topic for another day.

If any readers have newer or better polling data to add to this mix, kindly drop a link in the comments. (Note: Comments are moderated, so it might take a few hours until I have a chance to approve them. Please be patient. Comments here have been of very good quality lately; thanks for submitting them.)

3 Comments

  1. Here is the thing: I’m pretty sure Kim Jong un and his cadre of advisers are also aware of this.

    Most likely he will probably suspend his nuclear program temporarily to buy more time and pretend to make peace with them.

  2. “although unlike most South Koreans, I don’t have to work Saturdays, stay out late drinking with my boss, or watch him promote his incompetent college classmates ahead of me ”

    Other than being “lucky” as one of the prominent professors in Seoul cited as the main reason for Moon’s victory, Moon’s opponents should be ashamed for running completely weak and puzzling campaigns that did not point out the obvious danger of having someone like Moon as the next leader. Hong and Ahn should have been blasting the media with effective optics that showed horrors of Hiroshima-type atomic attack next to Kim Jong Un’s fabricated gregarious laughs, asking the question “when the phone rings at 2 am, who do you want…..”

    Out of sight, out of mind. After thousands of same bull shit threats made by Kim family against ROK and the US, the natural sentiment people in Seoul may have been, so what else is new. It was up to Moon’s opponents(conservatives) to answer that question in a simple but effective manner. They failed.

    Sad.

  3. I don’t have better ROK exit election data.
    Look at your own graph. 1.2% less want softer line and 3.8% more don’t know. Less think current stance is working by 5.1%. This does not translate into try anything for sake of trying. ROK voters want more ROK social justice and welfare. The DPRK will make its own mistakes.

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