Korea Backgrounder: How the South Views its Brother from Another Planet
Korea Backgrounder: How the South Views its Brother from Another Planet
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Interpreting North Korea’s Failed Satellite Launch
Interpreting North Korea’s Failed Satellite Launch
Report / Asia 3 minutes

Korea Backgrounder: How the South Views its Brother from Another Planet

A strong majority of South Koreans agree on the need to engage North Korea but there is no consensus on the most effective means.

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Executive Summary

A strong majority of South Koreans agree on the need to engage North Korea but there is no consensus on the most effective means. As the debate over how to deal with the northern brother intensifies, deep fissures are forming among the public. Significant generational and political shifts have transformed views in ways that could undermine U.S. policy in the region unless Washington develops a better understanding of the situation in Seoul.

The generation that lived through the Korean War is being supplanted by the generation that led the fight for democratisation in the 1980s. Younger South Koreans are less easily swayed by appeals to anti-communism and less reflexively pro-American. They are more accustomed to prosperity and less fearful of North Korea, and thus more willing to shake up their country's system in the name of economic and social justice. They are more progressive and nationalistic in their views, although few are true followers of Pyongyang's ideology. This generation, now in its 30s and 40s, will dominate South Korean politics for years to come.

As a result of this generational shift, there has been a change in both the style and substance of South Korea's approach to North Korea. While the vast majority still view the North as a threat, confrontation has been replaced by an emphasis on cooperation and reconciliation. The removal of government restrictions on inter-Korean exchanges has led to an explosion of contacts, helping to demystify the North in South Koreans' eyes. Moreover, students are no longer being taught to fear Pyongyang as their parents were. A majority of citizens now see North Korea more as an object for dialogue and assistance.

While engagement of North Korea remains controversial, there is an emerging consensus that:

  • North-South economic cooperation can be mutually beneficial;
  • gradual reunification is preferable to sudden collapse and absorption;
  • war on the Korean Peninsula is unthinkable;
  • North Korea's nuclear program is undesirable and should be negotiated away if possible, but it is not directed at South Korea and is not in itself reason to end engagement; and
  • it is necessary to help the people of North Korea overcome their economic hardships.

At the same time, there is a growing divergence about:

  • the capacity of the Kim Jong-il regime to change;
  • the desirability of dealing directly with the North Korean government;
  • the proper way to approach North Korean human rights problems;
  • whether to reduce legal restrictions on information about and contact with North Korea; and
  • the degree of reciprocity that should be demanded from North Korea.

The changes in South Korea's perceptions of North Korea intensify the debate about the future of the alliance with the U.S. A clear majority of South Koreans still regard North Korea as a potential threat, even though they consider an invasion unlikely. Most do not want U.S. troops to leave the peninsula, although some seem to regard the alliance as necessary, as much to restrain Washington as to deter Pyongyang. A clear majority is uneasy with what it sees as the Bush administration's hard-line stance toward the North. Few support regime change. Most instead favour gradual reconciliation and reunification. This split is exacerbated by the lack of close ties between South Korea's new political leadership and the ascendant Republicans in Washington. Two separate U.S.-South Korean dialogues are taking place: the people out of power in Seoul are talking to the people in power in Washington, and vice versa.

It is not true, as alarmists on the right sometimes claim that South Korea is being taken down the path of socialism. Today's young people have a dual mindset about North Korea: they are more accepting of dialogue with the regime but do not embrace the system. However, as moderates are being drowned out by the more vocal extremes, these subtle distinctions are being lost. In a country and culture that has never been adept at accommodating diversity of opinion, the crucial question is whether it will be possible to overcome the "South-South conflict" (nam-nam galdeung) and develop a coherent approach to the North Korean problem.

Seoul/Brussels, 14 December 2004

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