It has been a week of high tension on the Korean Peninsula. It began when landmines planted by North Korean soldiers in the DMZ blew off the legs of two South Korean soldiers. South Korea responded by re-erecting loudspeakers to blast propaganda across the DMZ. The two Koreas then exchanged fire. This led to marathon talks, and finally a deal to defuse the situation. Unfortunately, this is just about par for the course. But how does this affect South Korean views of North Korea? I’m glad you asked.
The deal in and of itself is not a great one for South Korea as it gave more than it got. It shut down its loudspeakers, and in exchange North Korea expressed “regret” over the two South Korean soldiers who lost their legs to North Korean landmines. Not an apology as South Korea was seeking, but regret.
Given the importance South Korea places on apologies and sincerity in both domestic and international contexts, it is telling that it does not place the same standards on North Korea. South Koreans have simply accepted that this is how the game is played.
Part of this has to do with the perception of current and future national security. As I wrote in 2013, there is a clear division between how South Koreans assess national security and North Korea’s ability to affect those perceptions. While much of the world loses its mind amidst the North’s nuclear tests, “satellite” launches, or the oft-used threat to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire”, Seoul is an oasis of calm. Short-term threat perceptions may increase temporarily, but long-term threat perceptions remain unchanged.
Does that long-term future include reunification of the two Koreas?
It was once taken as near-scripture that the two Koreas would reunite by collapse or by choice. The former cannot really be swayed by public opinion. If North Korea implodes, reunification will be messy but it will be complete. The latter scenario, however, can very much be influenced by public opinion.
It was once assumed that reunification by choice was the default position of the vast majority of South Koreans. This was based on the importance that Koreans were thought to place on the ethnic component of national identity. But the importance of ethnicity in national identity appears to be in decline.
Dr. Jiyoon Kim, a former colleague at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, illustrates that the importance of ethnicity is not what it once was.
National identities change, normally becoming less focused on ethnic homogeneity and more conscious of a shared civic community. This transformation has been observed in Korea for some time, but analysts were struck by the enduring hold of ethnic identity.
As ethnicity has declined in importance among the South Korean public, the civic component of identity formation has increased. That has obvious implications for reunification especially among many young South Koreans who may no longer prefer reunification by any means.
Data produced by Asan Institute surveys has consistently found that young Koreans are more likely to see North Korea as an enemy. (Link to PDF). Provocations by the North will only serve to reinforce that narrative among South Korea’s youth.
As this group ages, its numbers bolstered by other young South Koreans entering adulthood, the outlook for reunification by choice is poor. The unsatisfactory status quo will carry on, only with a South Korea that is increasingly willing to respond with force to a recalcitrant North Korea.