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Shifting Political Ground in South Korea: Implications for the U.S.-ROK Alliance

by Scott A. Snyder
February 1, 2011

U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC during Lee's State Visit June 16, 2009 (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC during Lee's State Visit June 16, 2009 (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters).

Woo Jung-yeop is a Research Fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

With a presidential election looming next year in Seoul, the South Korean news media has begun to speculate who will be the next president. Most of these stories have focused solely on potential candidates. They have listed names of politicians and tried to analyze their strengths and weaknesses. In most cases, however, little attention has been paid to analysis of issues or trends shaping public opinion. To make any meaningful forecast regarding the December 2012 South Korean election, we must know not only who will run for office but also how the voters see the issues.

To better understand South Korean public opinion, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies undertook a nationwide public opinion survey in the fall of 2010 (The Asan Annual Poll 2010). According to conventional wisdom, conservatives and liberals in South Korea can be defined by their attitudes toward North Korea and the United States. Conservatives are understood as hardliners toward North Korea and supporters of the United States, while liberals are more sympathetic to North Korea and have relatively stronger anti-American sentiments. Conservative ideology is also believed to be generally more dominant among the older generation. The Asan Institute Annual Poll 2010, conducted from August to October 2010 through face-to-face interviews of 2,000 adults nationwide, revealed several interesting findings with regard to changes in South Korean electorates.

First, the 2010 survey reveals that South Koreans are pragmatic in their attitudes toward the United States. Even those surveyed who did not favorably view the United States, for instance, those who saw the United States as an obstacle in North-South relations, believed that the U.S.-ROK alliance is necessary in the future. According to survey results, 87.2 percent of respondents support the alliance in the future, including the 86.5 percent who consider themselves to be liberals. This favorable and pragmatic attitude toward the U.S.-ROK alliance might have been reinforced by North Korea’s hostile acts in 2010 as well as by South Koreans’ weakening confidence in deterrence capability against North Korea. Only 23.3 percent of Koreans believed that the South Korean military can deter North Korean provocations without U.S. help. It must also be noted that South Koreans appear to separate their feelings toward the United States and their support for the U.S.-ROK alliance, a tendency that is stronger among generations in their 20s and 30s. For example, survey findings showed that younger generations do not like the Unite States as much as older generations do (52.3 percent and 48.8 percent of the 20s and 30s age groups respectively said they like the United States, compared to 66.6 percent of the 60s age group), but acknowledge the necessity of the U.S.-ROK alliance as strongly as their older counterparts.

Second, security is not the only issue that divides South Koreans ideologically. In fact, when it comes to defining their ideological stance, social and economic issues are more important. This trend is stronger among the younger generation, most notably those in their 30s. As for security issues, recent increases in North Korean provocations appear to have driven a shift toward conservative attitudes across all generations, making it difficult to distinguish liberal and conservative camps in the security area. In contrast, our survey revealed significant differences among generations and between conservatives and liberals on social issues such as abortion, gay rights, migrant workers, individual freedom, and public order.

What explains these observations? The main factor is that generations in their 20s and 30s are playing a totally different political game compared to their older counterparts. About a decade ago, younger generations, including the so-called “386” generation who were born in the 1960s and went to college in the 1980s, and older generations were engaged in the same game of democratization. As the democratization process in South Korea is closely related to relations with the United States and North Korea, important elements of that process are North-South security issues and pro or anti-Americanism. Before the advance of the 386 generation in the late 1990s and early 2000s, South Korean politics were strongly influenced by the older generation who pursued hardline security policy and pro-Americanism. As the power of the 386 generation increased, soft security policy and anti-Americanism also became more prominent.

South Korea’s 386 generation is now in their 40s. Unlike 386 counterparts, the current younger generation in their 30s and 20s did not experience the struggle toward democratization and lived their formative period in pretty much consolidated democracy. Having experienced fully-democratized civil society, they have very different policy views on North Korea and the United States. They have moved beyond the ideological battle of a decade ago, as a result of which pragmatism toward the United States and North Korea, and social concerns, is more important to them.

What are the implications for how U.S.-ROK alliance issues will surface in the presidential election in 2012? It is still too early to say what will happen in the remaining twenty-two months, but one thing we can be sure of is that security perceptions are going to play a different role than in the past. It is especially difficult to determine how those in their 20s and 30s will respond to security issues. This was observed in last year’s local elections in June, when younger generations reacted totally unexpectedly to the March 2010 Cheonan sinking and reflected different security perceptions from those of older generations. Specifically, younger generations appeared to pay more attention to the social issues derived from security issues. On the one hand, security issues arose because of the Cheonan incident, but social issues arose at the same time as younger generations believed that the government tried to use Cheonan as a political opportunity and oppress the public’s political freedom. As seen in the election outcome, public reaction to the latter was stronger.

If there is no strong stimulus from North Korea, public perception toward the U.S.-ROK alliance will be a constant variable in 2012. As long as the U.S.-ROK alliance remains a security issue, younger generations will unlikely react exceptionally, but once it becomes a social issue, the story will be totally different. It is important for political parties to serve younger generations’ demands in politics. What they demand now focuses on neither democratization nor national security. To mobilize and to appeal to those younger generations, political parties should provide them with various social policy choices. The political game will be very different once younger generations attach themselves to specific social policies. Political parties of Korea should be prepared for such changes.

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