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The Peninsula

North Korea Policy Incongruent with Public Opinion

Published October 14, 2021
Author: Korea View

What Happened

  • A recent survey conducted by the Institute of Peace and Unification Studies (IPUS) at Seoul National University showed that only 44% of South Koreans think that reunification with North Korea is necessary. This is the lowest percentage since the survey began in 2007.
  • The annual survey by the Korea Institute for National Universities (KINU) also revealed that more Koreans feel indifference toward reunification.
  • Meanwhile, South Korea’s Defense Ministry has pursued advancements in its capacity based on pragmatic national security needs.

Implications: Public opinion does not seem to be shaping the government’s approach to North Korea. Despite the public’s growing indifference to engagement with Pyongyang, the Moon Jae-in administration has vowed to seek unification by 2045 and called for an end-of-war declaration. Other recent developments in inter-Korean relations include the restoration of cross-border hotlines, Moon Jae-in’s letters to Kim Jong-un, and tentative plans for an inter-Korean summit. These developments are in part an outcrop of the incumbent administration’s early investment of political capital to deescalate tensions between North Korea and the United States in 2017. Nonetheless, the continued commitment to engagement suggests that inter-Korean reconciliation remains a major goal for Seoul regardless of the public’s response.

Context: The upcoming debate between the 2022 presidential frontrunners may hint at whether the changes in public opinion towards reunification have changed the political establishment’s attitudes towards engagement. In the 2017 presidential debates, Moon Jae-in argued that he was against a preemptive attack on North Korea and promised to attempt to open communication channels with Pyongyang. In a different debate one week later, Moon stated that it is not the president’s role to stipulate that North Korea is the country’s “main enemy.” Whether these talking points have changed will further underscore how much influence public opinion impacts Seoul’s policies towards North Korea.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Janet Hong and Yubin Huh. Picture from the  flickr account of Romy

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