Tag Archive | "polling data"

Despite Summit Boosts, Moon’s Approval Rating Continues to Decline

By Juni Kim

Despite a boost in approval ratings from the third inter-Korean summit in mid-September, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings have dropped to levels similar to before the summit according to recent polling data. A Gallup Korea poll conducted last week with 1,004 respondents showed that Moon’s rating had fallen to 55 percent, and a poll conducted by Realmeter showed near-identical results at 55.6 percent. Moon had previously seen his ratings drop steadily throughout 2018 to a low of 49 percent during the first week of September.

The recent results reveal two trends of how South Koreans view the current president’s performance. The first is that South Koreans generally approve of the president’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea, and the summits are viewed as important signs of progress in thawing tense inter-Korean relations. Each summit has been followed by a bump in approval ratings for President Moon, as can be seen in the graph below.

The second trend is that South Koreans have grown to increasingly disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy. A Gallup Korea survey conducted on October 10th and 11th showed that South Koreans remain pessimistic on the state of the economy. The survey found that 54 percent of respondents believed the unemployment rate would increase over the next year and 46 percent indicated that the economy will get worse, compared to only 20 percent of respondents that said the economy will get better. The numbers are similar to poll results in early August, which show that the Moon administration’s efforts to reassure the public since then have not effectively swayed public opinion.

President Moon’s recent approval ratings struggles also bring to mind the shared difficulty of past South Korean presidents in maintaining favorable ratings. Every elected president since 1988 has seen their ratings fall over the first year and a half in office. The one exception was Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye, though even her ratings trended downwards after an early boost. History does not paint a rosy picture for the rest of Moon’s tenure, with every other South Korean president seeing their ratings continue to fall as their term continues. On the half-glass-full side, President Moon entered office with historically high approval ratings and has also fared better than prior presidents at the current point in a presidential term.

There is a wider (and much more academic) discussion to be had of why every elected South Korean president struggles with falling ratings throughout each of their terms. South Korean presidents are limited to one five-year term, and this may be a contributing factor since current presidents do not have to worry about campaigning for a second term. Using the U.S. as an example, the past five U.S. presidents have seen their approval ratings increase in the lead up to their second election. History has also not been kind to South Korean presidents once they leave office, with many of them mired in scandal and corruption charges afterwards. In contrast, approval for U.S. presidents tends to improve once they leave office.

Looking to the future, Moon has a tall task ahead of him to gain back lost ground on his public approval. The public’s economic concerns are unlikely to disappear easily, but a major breakthrough in inter-Korean relations may win back a large share of Moon’s supporters. However, if the peace process appears to stall or even take steps backward, we may see history repeat itself again.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Graphics by Juni Kim.


Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (0)

South Korean Economic Concerns Dampen Moon’s Approval Ratings

By Juni Kim

For the first time in his presidency, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has seen his approval ratings fall below 60 percent as economic issues rise to the forefront of public concern. In both the most recent Gallup Korea and Realmeter polls, Moon’s rating currently stands at 58 percent, which follows a steady fall in numbers starting in early June.

Buoyed by broad support for his work in facilitating inter-Korean dialogue, Moon had previously enjoyed high approval ratings in the 70 to 80 percent range throughout the first year of his presidency. In the week after the first inter-Korean summit in late April, Moon’s approval ratings bounced up from 73 to 83 percent, displaying public confidence in Moon’s diplomatic efforts. While Moon remains generally popular, the recent fall in approval ratings show how economic concerns have started to overshadow Moon’s foreign affairs performance.

Among those that disapproved, poll results showed that the leading reason behind negative responses is the lack of progress on economic and public welfare issues. In particular, the accelerated minimum wage hike, which had already increased 16.4% this year and is set to rise an additional 10.9% next year, has worried small businesses about rising labor costs and the inability to keep up with the fast pace. Initially framed as part of Moon’s income-driven growth policy, the minimum wage increase has prompted apprehension among South Koreans over national unemployment and slowing economic growth.

In the same Gallup Korea survey, 44 percent of survey takers responded that the national economy would get worse over the next year, compared to only 17 percent of respondents that believed the economy would get better. Additionally, a majority (56 percent) indicated that the national unemployment rate will likely increase over the next year. In an effort to address these issues, Moon has made public efforts, including holding discussions with both local business owners and the heads of major Korean conglomerates, to listen to concerns over the state of the economy.

It is worth noting that nearly every elected South Korean president has had their overall approval ratings fall during the second year of their respective terms. Prior presidents Lee Myung-bak and Roh Moon-hyun both saw increases, but only after significant ratings drops in their first years. After more than a year and a half into every past presidential term, no president has had an average quarterly approval rating that exceeded 60 percent for the rest of their term. Compared to past circumstances, President Moon is faring relatively well despite the recent drop in approval.

President Moon also saw his approval ratings fall in the weeks leading up to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics over controversial decisions regarding North Korea’s participation in the Games. His ratings eventually rebounded after the Olympics, with the public generally approving of the success and execution of the Games.

With the third inter-Korean summit under his administration to take place in September, Moon has another prime opportunity to win back public support. His first summit with Kim Jong-un was warmly received by the South Korean public, and positive results from the upcoming summit could help the President bolster his popularity.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Graphics by Juni Kim.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (1)

South Korean Opinion of North Korea Spikes

By Jenna Gibson

In a new poll from the Asan Institute, South Korean public opinion of North Korea has greatly increased since the beginning of 2018, hitting 4.71 out of 10 in their June poll. According to Asan, this is the first time favorability of North Korea has exceeded 4.0 since they started conducting these polls in 2013. Kim Jong-un similarly saw a spike in favorability among the South Korean respondents, rising to 4.06 from just 0.88 in November 2017.

This result is particularly surprising in comparison to other countries in the region. The United States maintains its position as the most favored nation among Koreans, but North Korea had now surpassed both Japan and China in the eyes of the Korean public.

This increase comes on the back of the inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea Summits, which recurved positive reviews from Koreans. According to the Asan poll, 71.8 percent of South Koreans evaluated the Trump-Kim meeting as achieving positive results, and 62.6 percent said they believed North Korea will follow through on its agreements to denuclearize.

While the South Korean public remains optimistic about the recent dentente on the Korean peninsula, they will likely be closely watching next steps and their opinion may shift again as the situation continues to unfold.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. Graphic by Jenna Gibson.

Posted in Inter-Korean, North Korea, slider, South KoreaComments (0)

Young Koreans Are More Hopeful About the Economy Despite Challenges

By Jenna Gibson

For the first time in years, young South Koreans are optimistic about their country’s economy – even though major economic issues have not gone away. In a new poll from Deloitte that asked regularly employed South Koreans born between 1983 and 1994 what they thought of their country’s economic outlook for this year, 48 percent responded positively. This is a huge jump from the same poll last year, when only 13 percent held positive views of Korea’s growth potential.

The economic outlook for young Koreans has been grim for the past few years, with youth unemployment continuing to climb. Under a new expanded definition that includes certain types of underemployment, Korea’s youth unemployment rate reached a staggering 24 percent. At the same time, South Korea’s overall economic growth is steady at around 3 percent, a rate that is expected to be maintained or increase slightly in 2018.

Despite this, young South Koreans are bullish on Korea’s growth in 2018. One of the main reasons is President Moon Jae-in, who was swept into office on a wave of populism bolstered by the grassroots democratic movement that removed President Park Geun-hye from office. And the juxtaposition between Park and Moon could not be more stark – she represented everything many young Koreans see as wrong with what they call Hell Chosun, from her reliance on old money and entrenched networks of the ultra-rich to her distant and aloof manner. Moon on the other hand makes connecting with the people a priority, from eating in the cafeteria to taking actual questions from journalists during a marathon press conference.

In terms of his economic goals, President Moon laid out his goals in a recent statement, saying, “We still have a long way to go…there seems to be little change in the everyday lives of the people…When I finish my term, I hope to hear people saying, ‘Much has changed, my life has become better.’”

But while President Moon and his policies overall are incredibly popular, his economic scorecard is more mixed. Recent Gallup Korea polling shows that while approval of Moon’s diplomatic and North Korea policies are at 74 and 83 percent respectively, only 47 percent of South Koreans approve of the way he’s handling the economy. This could be because while Moon has laid out a slew of ambitious policies, from cracking down on conglomerates to reducing the maximum number of hours workers can clock in per week, many of these plans will take years to show dividends, and some may cause unintended consequences in the meantime.

Take one of Moon’s major economic initiatives, a minimum wage hike, for example. His administration increased the country’s minimum wage from 6,470 won per hour in 2017 to 7,530 in 2018, aiming to reach 10,000 by 2020. But while this addresses some of the Korean public’s major concerns about growing income inequality, some fear it will also put a damper on hiring. In fact, statistics show there are already job losses, particularly among small and medium-sized businesses.

In addition, one of the major limitations of the Deloitte survey is that it only polls young South Koreans who are regularly employed. As researchers have pointed out, one of the main issues holding young Koreans (especially women and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds) back is the dichotomy between those with regular work and those who are stuck in a cycle of temporary and contract positions. So while this study is certainly instructive in terms of highlighting the huge jump in those who have a positive outlook of the South Korean economy, it would be interesting to see if young South Koreans who are un- or under-employed share the same optimism.

Moon seems to really get the issues that plague young Koreans – or at least he tries to. His policies may not be the silver bullet that launches a new wave of economic growth, but for the first time in years, Koreans feel like they have a president who is at least listening to their issues and trying to find a way to fix them.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from LG전자’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (0)

More South Koreans Trust North Korea’s Intent to Denuclearize after Summit

By Juni Kim

Last Friday’s historic meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was enthusiastically received by the South Korean public. According to a Realmeter poll conducted the day of the summit, nearly 65 percent of South Koreans trust North Korea will denuclearize and maintain peace, a stunning reversal from only 14.7 percent before the summit.

Large increases of 25 to 55 percent were seen across all age, geographic, and ideological demographics. While previous polls have indicated that young South Koreans in their 20s are more skeptical and indifferent towards North Korea compared to the general population, young Koreans likewise had a hefty 48.9 percent increase in trust from 9.8 percent (the lowest number among measured age ranges) to 58.7 percent. Respondents that self-identified as conservative, who typically lean towards a hawkish stance on security issues, saw an increase of 25.8 percent from 13.8 percent to 39.6 percent.

President Moon also enjoyed a significant bump in his approval ratings post-summit. In the latest Hangil Research poll, Moon’s ratings jumped 12.9 percent to 85.7 percent. Moon saw his numbers dip in the lead up to the Pyeongchang Olympics (though reports of online opinion manipulation cast doubt on the true poll values), but his numbers have since rebounded.

The significant shift in poll numbers highlight how impactful the summit was for South Koreans and their hopes for a peaceful resolution on the Korean peninsula. The startling images of the two leaders holding hands, sharing jokes, and warmly embracing made a profound impression for a nation that has endured the prospect of war with its northern neighbor. The next critical test will be the pending U.S.-North Korea summit, which will also have substantial implications for the future of the peninsula.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from berlinrider’s photosteam on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in Inter-Korean, slider, South KoreaComments (0)

Summit Announcements Encourage Cautious Optimism Among South Koreans

By Juni Kim

On March 8th, a special delegation from South Korea announced on the White House lawn that U.S. President Donald Trump had accepted an invitation from North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un to meet. The surprise announcement followed an earlier proposal for an inter-Korean summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Both summit declarations cap a recent string of cooperative overtures made by the North Korean regime, starting from Kim Jong-un’s unusually conciliatory remarks in his New Year’s address.

While the talks have been met with varied reactions by Korea watchers, recent polls show that South Koreans have positively received the announcement of the proposed talks and are somewhat optimistic what it means for inter-Korean relations. According to a March 9th Realmeter poll, 73 percent of South Koreans welcomed the development, compared to 23 percent who did not welcome the change.

A majority of South Koreans (53 percent) also believed the proposed summit announcement marks a change in North Korea’s attitude. The numbers stand in stark contrast to Korea Gallup polling conducted shortly after Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address this past January when the leader called for a peaceful resolution of tensions with South Korea. At that time, 65 percent of South Koreans responded that the speech did not reflect a change in North Korea’s attitude.

The substantial difference in reaction between the two different events underlies the significance of the summit announcements for the South Korean public. The last inter-Korean summit was more than ten years ago, with then-South Korean President Roh Moon-hyun and Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il. A sitting U.S. president has never met with a North Korean leader.

South Korean poll respondents also expressed more optimism about North Korea’s denuclearization compared to poll numbers in January, though a majority of South Koreans still believe that North Korea will never give up its nuclear program.

Although the poll numbers indicate increased optimism, South Koreans still remain deeply skeptical of their northern counterpart. According to Realmeter, 64 percent of polled South Koreans do not trust North Korea despite the talks offer, while 32 percent of South Koreans do trust North Korea. The numbers reflect South Korean awareness and familiarity with North Korean diplomatic tactics. Prior inter-Korean talks in the 2000s under the “Sunshine Policy” were later criticized for the substantial amounts of money South Korea provided to the North during that time, and the current lack of South Korean trust despite increased optimism reflects this recent history.

Having lived under the North Korean threat for decades, South Koreans are very familiar with the deadly provocations and broken promises of the past. The upcoming summits are undoubtedly meaningful, but like many throughout the global community, South Koreans are cautiously optimistic of what developments the talks will bring.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from zuk0’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (0)

How are South Korean Voters reacting to Newly Created Political Parties?

By Juni Kim

On February 13th, South Korean lawmakers from both the center-left People’s Party and the center-right Bareun Party finalized their merger and launched the new Bareun Mirae Party, which translates literally to the Righteous Future Party. National Assemblyman Yoo Seong-min, one of the new party heads and former Bareun Party presidential candidate, boldly declared, “We will become a party that competes with the incompetent ruling party, and the center-right reformist party that replaces the Liberty Korea Party.” The Bareun Future leadership hopes that the new party’s creation will be a watershed moment in South Korean politics, which has long been dominated by a two-party system and political regionalism.

Although the merger now makes the Bareun Future Party the third largest political party in the National Assembly at 30 members, both originating parties faced their own internal struggles leading up to last month’s merger. Created in the wake of former President Park Geun-hye’s scandal, the Bareun Party struggled to retain its ranks as many of its legislators defected back to the major conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP) prior to the merger. The party lost its parliamentary negotiating bloc status, which requires 20 legislators, last November when nine of its members left. By the time of the party merger, the Bareun party’s legislative members only numbered in the single digits.

Fractured interests and leadership struggles in the People’s Party also provoked 14 legislators to defect from their party prior to the merger and form the Party for Democracy and Peace (PDP). The PDP is currently seeking to form its own negotiating bloc with the progressive Justice Party, which has the requisite six additional members needed to meet the minimum requirement.

Any expected boost from the merger has yet to materialize in higher approval ratings. In the weeks following the merger, approval ratings for the Bareun Future Party are similar to the Bareun Party’s numbers and slightly better than the People’s Party’s ratings before the merger. In the most recent Korea Gallup polls, the Bareun Future Party had a 6% approval rating, while the most recent Realmeter poll had the party’s approval rating at 8.4%. In comparison, the Bareun Party’s approval rating before the merger mostly fluctuated in the high-single digits while the People’s party in the mid-single digits.

The PDP has had a more difficult time in finding its foothold since its own inception. For the past two weeks, Korea Gallup polls have the party’s approval rating at 1%. The most recent Realmeter numbers have the party at a slightly rosier 2.6%.

As the above chart shows, approval rating struggles are a common challenge for all parties besides the ruling Democratic Party, which is the party of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Despite maintaining significantly higher approval ratings, the Democratic Party currently does not hold a legislative majority and minor parties like the newly created Bareun Future Party and PDP can still play pivotal roles in the National Assembly agenda.

With the June local elections fast approaching, South Korean voters will be the ultimate factor in deciding the course of the two new minor parties and how much impact they will have in national politics. However, both parties have their work cut for them to convince voters of their platform message ahead of what will almost certainly be a heated election season.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from lets.book’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (0)

Olympic Clouds Over Moon’s Approval Ratings?

By Jenna Gibson

Up until the last few weeks, the South Korean public has given President Moon Jae-in an overwhelming mandate. But his recent engagement with the North Koreans as part of the PyeongChang Olympics brought mixed reviews, and lowered his previously sky-high approval ratings, raising concern that his overtures to Pyongyang may isolate Korean moderates. But was that the case?

Although he was elected with only 41 percent of the vote last May, President Moon started his tenure with an 84 percent approval rate in June. This number then hovered around 80 percent for a few months before slowly dipping into mid-to low 70s, where it stayed through October. For reference, Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye, began her tenure at 45 percent approval, reaching a high of 68 percent about 7 months into her presidency before dropping back into the 30s and 40s, where she remained for most of her time in the Blue House. And her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, quickly dropped from a 50 percent approval rate to a low of around 20 percent in the first few months of his presidency.

After his impressive start, though, Moon’s Olympic diplomacy caused significant pushback from the Korean public. In the second and third weeks of January, as Moon’s government began sitting down with their North Korean counterparts to hash out the details of their PyeongChang cooperation, Moon’s approval numbers started sliding, dropping into the low 60s for the first time in his presidency and hitting a low of 59.7 percent on January 25, the first poll conducted after the January 20 meeting where the International Olympic Committee approved North Korea’s participation in the Games and officially created the unified women’s hockey team.

As the approval numbers indicate, initial response to President Moon’s overtures was mixed, with many young people (a key part of Moon’s base) expressing frustration that after all the work their country had done to prepare for the event, they wouldn’t even get to show off their own flag during the Opening Ceremony. Conservative groups protested the move, and one Liberty Party lawmaker even declared that the PyeongChang Olympics had become the Pyongyang Olympics.

Korea’s Prime Minister didn’t help – on January 16, when the idea to combine the women’s hockey teams was still being discussed, he told reporters that people should be ok with the idea because the team was ranked 22nd in the world, and therefore was “not in medal contention.” His comments drew ire not only for their condescension, but also because they highlighted the sexism inherent in the decision – the Korean men’s hockey team is currently ranked 21st in the world, but were not forced to accept North Korean players with two weeks’ notice. According to The New York Times, a petition on the Blue House website opposed to the unified team reached 50,000 signatures, and a Realmeter poll conducted in mid-January found that 60 percent of South Korean respondents opposed marching under the unified Korean flag.

However, after taking a dip amid the announcements about North Korea’s participation, as the Games officially got underway the Korean public seemed prepared to give Moon’s plan a chance. His approval rating remained steady in the mid-60s throughout the beginning of the Games, and now in the third week of February, his numbers seem to be on a tentative upward trajectory, reaching 66 percent for the first time since mid-January.

Interestingly, the dip in his approval ratings  comes from across the political spectrum. According to Gallup polling, members of Moon’s progressive Minjoo Party who approved of the president’s performance dropped from 97 percent in the first week of January to 89 percent in the first week of February, bouncing back to 92 percent this week.  On the other side of the political spectrum, however, he saw similar losses – dropping from a 27 percent approval among Liberty Korea Party members at the beginning of January to 15 percent in the first week of February and 17 percent in the fourth week of February. Moderates and those without a political affiliation saw only minor fluctuations in their approval over that time period. These results call into question the assumption that Korean progressives are all staunchly pro-engagement.

Post-Olympics, Moon will have to play his cards carefully to avoid isolating parts of the public further and to maintain his strong domestic political mandate. With North Korea’s Kim Yo-jong passing along an official invitation for President Moon to visit Pyongyang and with the North Koreans leaving the door open for possible talks with the United States, it seems Moon’s Olympic diplomacy is only just getting started. What remains to be seen, however, is if the South Korean public will return to their overwhelming support for the president, or continue to be skeptical of these moves.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (0)

How Do Trump’s Approval Ratings in South Korea Compare to Prior U.S. Presidents?

By Juni Kim

U.S. President Donald Trump will make his first visit in office to South Korea tomorrow as part of his trip to Asia, which comes at a crucial point in U.S.-Korea relations. The recent string of North Korean provocations, including a successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test in July and North Korea’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September, have raised concerns in the United States and internationally of the possibility of greater military conflict between the U.S. and North Korea. The state of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, commonly referred to as the KORUS FTA, is also in flux and President Trump has repeatedly voiced his desire to terminate the agreement, which has worried trade analysts in both the U.S. and South Korea.

With these concerns weighing over the U.S.-South Korea alliance, public confidence in the national leadership of both countries can play an important role in reassuring the strength of the relationship. However, South Koreans have expressed a substantial and historical lack of confidence in President Trump according to a Spring 2017 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center. Only 17 percent of South Korean respondents indicated that they had confidence in President Trump, which dramatically differs from South Korean public confidence in President Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. For the polled periods during his two terms in office, Obama never went below 75 percent and had as high as 88 percent of polled South Koreans showing confidence.

Surveys conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies yielded similar results. When asked to rate a leader’s favorability on a 0-10 scale (with 10 being the most favorable and 0 the least favorable), Trump scored a 2.96 among South Korean respondents in a June survey, which pales to Obama’s rating of 7.08 towards the end of his administration. Of interesting note, Trump actually enjoyed a stronger rating as president compared to when he was a candidate. Before last November’s U.S. presidential election, President Trump consistently had a rating under 2 on the scale before jumping to around 3 after the election.

Although the South Korean public also held less confidence in the previous Republican President George W. Bush, Trump’s favorability ratings are also significantly less than Bush’s numbers. According to Pew, South Korean poll respondents indicated confidence levels of Bush at 36 percent in 2003, 22 percent in 2007, and 30 percent in 2008. Even though Bush’s ratings are a fraction of Obama’s numbers, South Koreans at times expressed roughly twice as much confidence in Bush than Trump during the polled periods.

South Korean public opinion on U.S. presidents may have fluctuated wildly depending on who is in office, but South Koreans have been more consistent in their favorability to the United States itself. Pew poll numbers show a relatively steady increase in South Koreans expressing a favorable opinion of America from 2002, when President Bush made his controversially received “axis of evil” comments on North Korea, through both of Obama’s administrations. Although there is a slight dip this year at 75 percent favorability, a robust majority of South Koreans still view the United States favorably despite not holding President Trump in high esteem.

In light of China’s increasing assertiveness in regional affairs and North Korea’s advances in its weapons programs, this trend shows hope for the continued strength and importance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance to the South Korean public regardless of how they may view the current U.S. administration. The polling over the past decade and a half shows that the two measures do not always correlate. However, the current administration should be aware that a sustained negative opinion of the president may hurt how South Koreans think of the United States generally and diminish the largely positive perception the U.S. has enjoyed in South Korea over the past decade.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Jim Mattis’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (0)

Why South Koreans Keep their Cool about North Korea while Americans Grow More Alarmed

By Juni Kim

North Korea shocked the international community on July 28th when it launched an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) that demonstrated the rogue nation’s ability to reach the continental United States. The missile launch was followed by North Korea’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test on September 2nd. U.S. President Donald Trump responded to recent actions like these with heated rhetoric, including at one point threatening North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

The recent string of events has not gone unnoticed by the American public, and many are increasingly concerned by the North Korean threat. A survey conducted in July by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported that 75% of Americans now view North Korea’s nuclear program as a critical threat, which increased from 60% in 2016 and 55% in 2015. Similarly, a CNN poll conducted by SRSS in August indicated that 62% of Americans say that North Korea is a very serious threat, which has grown substantially since early 2015 when only 32% thought so.

Despite growing American concerns over North Korea’s weapons capabilities, South Koreans have responded in a more sanguine manner in recent years and increasingly view war with North Korea as less likely. In response to the question over the possibility of North Korea starting a war, a series of Gallup Korea polls over time (as seen below) shows that 58% of South Koreans think that it is not possible compared to 37% that think it is possible. In over 25 years of poll results, the only period of time where South Koreans were more optimistic than the present day was during the “Sunshine Policy” years of the early 2000’s. In another Gallup International poll, South Koreans are similarly more doubtful of North Korean nuclear weapons use (59% say it is unlikely) compared to Americans (35% say it is unlikely).

Why do South Koreans remain relatively undaunted by North Korea while Americans grow increasingly anxious? There is no blanket reason that wholly explains the diverging trends, but differences in media coverage and South Korea’s lengthy and personal history with its northern counterpart both factor in how people in both countries think about North Korea.

There is an old saying in news that “if it bleeds, it leads,” and that type of mentality readily displays itself in U.S. media coverage of North Korea. In a study by KEI’s Director of Communications Jenna Gibson, the top three keywords in U.S. news headlines in 2016 about Korea are “nuclear,” “missile,” and “test.” All three words relate to North Korean provocations and highlight North Korea as a military threat. During a panel at KEI on North Korean media coverage last week, Kang In-sun, the Washington Bureau Chief at Chosun Ilbo, echoed how North Korean headlines in the U.S. gravitate towards more threatening stories. She stated, “Journalism is always pursuing sensationalism. They are more interested in war scenarios and military options than negotiations and dialogue. The situation is a little bit more exaggerated than it is.” In comparison, Dohoon Kim, Editor in Chief of HuffPost Korea, humorously noted how North Korea’s nuclear test in January 2016 quickly faded from headlines in South Korea. He recalled, “I’m not saying what happened wasn’t dangerous, but the fact is Koreans in less than a day have turned away from that news. To be honest, even the day it happened, people here didn’t make a huge fuss about it. For example, the most popular article during the last two days on HuffPost Korea was ‘Nine Things That Make Good Employees Quit.’”

The U.S. and South Korea also share two very different histories with North Korea that affect how they view the current North Korean crisis. Although North Korea has posed a critical threat to South Korea since its inception, the United States has only had to grapple with the concept of a direct North Korean threat recently when missile tests displayed the capability to reach American shores. In comparison, South Korea experienced multiple presidential assassination attempts by North Korean operatives, terrorist attacks, the bombing of South Korean cabinet members, the sinking of its military vessels, and other deadly incidents at the hands of North Korea for more than half a century. The recent developments in North Korea’s nuclear and missile technology is certainly troubling for South Koreans, but sadly only the latest chapter in a bitter decades-long conflict between the two Koreas.

It may be tempting to view South Koreans as having grown indifferent to the North Korean threat based on the poll numbers, but that would be an unfair and simplistic assessment. In a column for The Guardian, Haeryun Kang of Korean Expose suggested that South Korean attitudes to the North are much more complicated than it first seems. She explained, “The reality of South Korean ‘indifference’ is complex and even contradictory… Behind the indifference lies also years of fear, deep and even subconscious.” Having to live with a constant existential threat is unsettling, but it has been a fact of daily living in South Korea for as long as most South Koreans have lived. In other words, fear of a North Korean attack certainly exists in South Korea, but it has become in a sense normalized after decades of tense coexistence. The poll numbers also suggest that younger South Koreans are not as acclimated to the threat as older citizens. Of all age demographics, South Koreans in their 20’s indicated the most concern over North Korea with 53% saying it is likely that North Korea will use a nuclear weapon and 42% saying war is likely with the North.

There are certainly other factors in play as well, like caricatures of North Korea in U.S. media, and they are worth considering when analyzing the divide in public concern between America and South Korea. This is also not to say that North Korea should be treated lightly and not viewed as a serious threat to the United States. The developments in North Korea’s weapons capabilities over the past few years rightly demand the attention of the American public, but a problem like North Korea should be approached with rationality and not sensationalist belief.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Uri Tours’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (0)

About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.