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The Peninsula

South Korea Public Opinion Poll – Final Update

Published December 14, 2012
Category: South Korea

Below are the key findings from the surveys conducted by Research and Research in November and December. Where applicable, dates the survey was conducted are in brackets.

The presidential race between Park Geun-Hye and Moon Jae-In remained tight. As of December 12, 43.4% support Park, while 41.9% support Moon.

Following Ahn Cheol-Soo’s exit from the race, 38.5% stated it would be advantageous for Moon Jae-In, while 33.5% said it would benefit Park Geun-Hye. [Nov. 24-26]

44.8% cited Park Geun-Hye as being more capable of handling relations with North Korea. 40.6% cited Moon Jae-In. [Nov. 30-Dec. 2]

Regarding the announcement by North Korea on December 1 of a planned long range missile launch, 25.4% stated that this would be advantageous for Park Geun-Hye. 9.4% stated it would help Moon. 48.5% said it would have no influence. [Dec. 3–5]

While 48.6% said that this election would be a referendum on the administration of Lee Myung-Bak, 43.3% said it would not. [Dec. 3–5]

55.1% expected Park Geun-Hye to win the election. 25.0% expected Moon to win. [Dec. 9–11]

The sample size of the survey was 1,000 respondents over the age of 19. The margin of error is ±3.1% at the 95% confidence level. The survey was conducted by the Research & Research. It employed the Random Digit Dialing method for mobile and landline telephones.

Note: Due to election law in Korea, the last results that can legally be released are those from on or before December 12. Polling will continue, but those results are embargoed until after the election.

Also, results presented for December 12 should not be interpreted as fully accounting for the North Korean missile launch. Only one-third of the sample was collected on that day. While this sample was likely aware of the launch, the other two-thirds of the sample was collected in the two days prior.

Long-Range Missile Diplomacy

For those who follow the Korean Peninsula closely, South Korean elections and North Korean provocations seemingly go hand-in-hand. While North Korea has railed against the potential election of Ms. Park, conventional wisdom holds that provocations benefit the conservative party. Thus, debate remains on which benefits North Korea more—a liberal
administration willing to provide unconditional food and economic aid or a conservative administration that provides in with important internal legitimization. But the more immediate question is if North Korea’s reportedly successful missile launch will have any effect on the South Korean presidential election.

While an announced, and failed, launch is a known variable in terms of South Korean public opinion, a successful launch remains an unknown. However, the best reading of the data suggests that the launch will not have a strong impact on the election. There is some recent history to back this up. Just a day prior to the National Assembly elections in April, headlines hit the papers that North Korea was ready to launch a long range missile. Of course, the
conservative Saenuri party went on to unexpectedly win that election. However, connecting one to the other is spurious at best. First, as the March edition of this report noted, the Saenuri Party was clearly surging before the announcement of the rocket launch and the Democratic United Party (DUP) made several strategic blunders during the campaign. Second, in a survey conducted by the Asan Institute immediately following the National Assembly election only 6.1% cited the pending North Korean missile launch as the issue which decided their vote. Of course, it could be argued that because the Blue House, and not the National Assembly, sets North Korea policy the most recent launch will have a much larger impact.

There are two strong arguments that this will not be the case. First, the Korean public’s opinion on which candidate is most capable of handling North Korea relations is split—44.8% cite Park Geun-Hye as most capable, 40.6% cite Moon Jae-In.1 This is roughly in line with the spread from the previous time this question was asked in late October. In that survey, 40.9% cited Park versus 35.5% for Moon. 2 (10.0% cited Ahn Cheol-Soo.) It appears that respondents have already decided which candidate’s North Korea policy they prefer and a non-lethal missile launch may harden those positions rather than causing voters to switch.

Second, following the announcement of the launch on December 1 there was no evidence of a shift in candidate support. Support for Ms. Park remained largely flat from December 4—the first day when the North’s announcement would have been fully accounted for in the data. However, a significant rise for Moon Jae-In coincides with the launch announcement, but such a connection is speculative. Thus, the effect of the announcement on the presidential polls is unclear but likely negligible.

Regarding the effect of the actual launch, there is little data to go on, and its interpretation should be done carefully. On December 12, 337 respondents participated in the survey— approximately one-third of the full sample. (One-third participated on December 11 and onethird on December 10.) Because the launch occurred before 10am, it is likely that this group of respondents was aware of the missile launch. However, there was no surge in support among this group for Park Geun-Hye. While support did rise slightly (2.7pp from the previous day’s respondents), it was within the margin of error. Moreover, Moon Jae-In also saw a slight rise in support among this group as compared with the previous day. Again, this is not a full sample, but it does suggest that there will not be a strong impact from the North
Korean launch.

If there is to be a shift, it is most likely to come from voters in their 20s. One of the most consistent results in Asan surveys is that this cohort is decidedly security conservative. When it comes to issues related to North Korea, they identify much more with Koreans in their 60s than with those in their 30s or 40s. On which candidate is best able to handle North Korea relations, 48.3% cited Ms. Park—14.7pp higher than those in their thirties and 10.8pp higher
than those in their forties. However, since December 4 there has been no consistent upswing for Ms. Park (Figure 2). While she did gain 8.4pp from December 4 to December 7, those gains were erased by December 11. While there was a 3.7pp gain for Ms. Park from December 11 to December 12 the driver of that gain is not clear nor is such a gain unusual for her among this cohort.

The Final Count Down

The timing of the North Korean missile launch has now overshadowed what might actually be the most important event of the campaign—Ahn Cheol-Soo’s exit from the race. Unable to come to terms on how to best decide a unified progressive candidate, Dr. Ahn unilaterally withdrew from the race on November 23. This was certainly not an ideal situation for either Ms. Park or Mr. Moon. Park would have preferred that both candidates remained, creating a
three-way race which she would have easily won. For Moon, the result was even more unsatisfactory. Even though he became the unified candidate, the unification process was not perceived to be based on consent between the two candidates but rather a failure of negotiations.

The less than harmonious unification process may have led some Ahn supporters to refuse to support Moon immediately. According to Research & Reasearch’s survey on November 26, 56.8% of previous Ahn supporters answered that they would now support Moon, while 18.9% stated they would support Park—21.9% remained undecided. This was not unexpected. It was clear that Moon and Ahn were not seen as perfect substitutes for one another, and the October-November issue of this report noted that there would not be a 1:1 shift.

Following Ahn’s resignation, Moon failed to overtake Park in the polls, and on November 29 the gap between Park and Moon was as large as 8.5pp. However, Moon’s support began to recover and the spread between Moon and Park gradually shrank. As of December 12, the race remains tight with Park leading by only 1.5pp.

Generation, Generation, Generation

This election is projected to be another battle between generations. As is already well established, Park Geun-Hye’s base is among those in their 50s and 60s, while Moon Jae-In now enjoys strong support—thanks to Dr. Ahn’s withdrawal—from those in their 20s and 30s. Given that it is generally known how the oldest and youngest generations will vote, those in their 40s could prove to be critical in this election. As shown in Figure 3 and Figure 4, and in
true tossup fashion, this cohort is divided amongst itself on which candidate it prefers. While those aged 40-44 have consistently preferred Moon Jae-In (Figure 3), those aged 45-49 have generally preferred Park Geun-Hye (Figure 4), although that lead has been narrowed significantly.

Demographic Shift

One of the challenges facing not only Moon Jae-In, but the progressive candidates of the future, is the demographic shift towards an older society. According to the National Election Commission, in the 2007 election those in their 50s and 60s or over combined to make up 33.7% of all eligible voters. However, in terms of actual voter turnout, these two cohorts combined to make up 40.8%. In 2012, according to the most recent census data, these two cohorts now combine to make up 38.7% of eligible voters, a 5.0pp increase from five years earlier (Figure 5).

Turnout among these cohorts has been incredibly reliable. In every election since 2000, turnout among the 50s and 60s+ has averaged 74.7%. Comparatively, turnout for those in their 20s and 30s averaged 41.8% and 51.8%, respectively. (That number is 64.5% for the 40s.) In presidential elections, those in their 50s and 60s combined for an average turnout of 78.9%, compared with 51.8% of those in their 20s, 61.3% of those in their 30s, and 71.3% of
those in their 40s.3 This strong, reliable turnout among the oldest voting blocs provides Ms. Park an advantage given their strong support for her (Appendix Figure 1, Appendix Figure 2).

If this trend holds, and there is every reason to believe that it will, Mr. Moon will clearly need very strong turnout from the young cohorts—cohorts which have historically had trouble in making it to the voting booth. However, a rise in youth turnout would likely create a rise in overall turnout, something that would be swimming against history. Since 1987, each presidential election has had lower voter turnout than the previous election. In 1987, turnout was at 89%, declining each year, with major decreases from 1997 (81%) to 2002 (71%), and from 2002 to 2007 (63%).

The Gender Card

Somewhat surprisingly, there has been very little said about Ms. Park as the first female candidate with a real chance at taking the Blue House. Given the generally poor reviews Korea is given for gender equality and female labor force participation rates, almost nothing has been said about gender throughout the entire race. The older generations have left the issue alone because she is the daughter of Park Chung-Hee, and the younger generations have been quite on the issue because they are much more liberal on social issues.

However, there has been a consistent preference among women for Ms. Park. While the two candidates have been virtually tied among men, Ms. Park has maintained a 6-10pp lead over Mr. Moon among women (Figure 6). This is an interesting phenomenon, particularly considering that in American elections female voters disproportionately vote for Democrats. Yet, it is premature to assert that Korean women see Park Geun-Hye as a presidential candidate representing women. In fact, Korean female voters have long been quite conservative, and are more likely to support the Saenuri Party than the DUP.

Regional Races

The regionalism present in South Korean elections isone of the most well-known features of Korean politics. The east-west rivalry has been in existence since before the Japanese invaded Korean in 1592, and shows little sign of abating in the current election. While Park holds large leads in the Busan/Ulsan/Gyeongnam area (Appendix Figure 3) and Daegu/Gyeongbuk  (Appendix Figure 4), Moon leads easily in Gwangju/Jeolla (Appendix Figure 5). The Daejeon/Choongchung area was expected to be hotly contested and indeed that has been the case. What was once a commanding Park lead in late November has become a race within the margin of error in early December (Appendix Figure 6). The real prize remains as the greater national capital region. Seoul and its surroundings combine to make up approximately 48% of the population, and a clear victory here could create a huge advantage for either candidate. While Park trails in Seoul by 7.4pp as of December 12 (Figure 7), Incheon/Gyeonggi remains within the margin of error (Figure 8).


This report presents a mixed view of the election for both candidates. However, even though the race remains tight in the poll, Moon Jae-In still faces several significant challenges. The most significant problem is going to be youth turnout. While many of these young voters voice support for Moon Jae-In, it is not clear that they will actually turn up on voting day. After all, many of them were supporters of Ahn Cheol-Soo, and without him in the race they may simply abstain. This, along with the simple demographic challenges he faces, presents a very difficult—but not impossible—path to victory for Mr. Moon.



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