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Northeast Asian Public Views: Isolated North Korea; Good Vibes Between Japan and South Korea

by Scott A. Snyder
April 21, 2010

The latest BBC/World Service Poll conducted in January and released earlier this week has some results in Northeast Asia that offer some food for thought—at least for anyone who thinks that public views are a potentially decisive influence on foreign policy.  The two most notable results in Northeast Asia are the precipitous rise in negative Chinese (and Russian) views towards North Korea and the strikingly positive feelings that exist between the South Korean and Japanese publics toward each other on the one hundredth anniversary of Japan’s annexation of the Korean peninsula.

The annual poll reports an eighteen point drop in positive views of North Korea among Chinese (29% positive views; 44% negative views) and a fifteen point rise in negative views of North Korea among Russians (25% positive views, 50% negative views) polled.  Formerly divided views on North Korea now tilt in a “sharply negative direction.” Chinese approval of North Korea is the lowest recorded in this poll over the last four years.

Presumably these results reflect public discomfort among North Korea’s neighbors with its 2009 missile and nuclear tests, but the results also suggest that public views of North Korea among countries involved in the Six Party talks are unified against it. North Korea’s negatives topped 90 percent in both South Korea and Japan and reached 70 percent among those polled in the United States. Globally, only Iran (15% positive) polled more negatively than North Korea (16% positive). This result suggests there is a strong public basis across the region to oppose North Korea’s nuclear provocations.

The truly surprising result, however, is the mutually positive feelings reflected between the publics in Japan and South Korea. Despite the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of the Korean peninsula this year and nagging territorial and textbook disputes, the poll shows that South Korean views of Japan have shifted in a markedly positive direction in the last two years, with 64 percent positive views and 29 percent holding negative views of Japan, compared to 37 percent positive and 52 percent negative views in 2008.  Thirty-six percent of Japanese polled have positive views toward South Korea, while only nine percent hold negative views, suggesting an ambivalent, but balanced, positive view of South Korea.

These results are in line with the outcome of a less scientific Pacific Forum CSIS poll of elite opinion that my colleague Brad Glosserman and I conducted in the winter of 2007-2008, analysis and results of which are recorded here.  Despite political difficulties and emotional flare-ups, especially during this historically sensitive year, mutually positive grassroots sentiments suggest that there is plenty of room for the governments in South Korea and Japan to step up political cooperation (not to mention good shopping tours and other exchanges; a popular Korean spy drama involving North Korean infiltration into the South is debuting in Japanese prime time this week). From a U.S. perspective, the development of good feeling between South Korea and Japan, our two main security allies in Northeast Asia, should not be more welcome.

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