April 16, 2018 | By Karl Friedhoff

The Reunification Spectrum for South Koreans

With the South Korea-North Korea summit scheduled for April 27, it is a good time to revisit the question that often comes up when discussing the two Koreas: Do South Koreans even want to reunify? The answer is, as with many difficult questions, complicated.

At the most basic level, South Koreans want reunification to take place. According to Gallup Korea, since 2001 over 70 percent of South Koreans have said that Korea should be reunified. In 2018, that number was 78 percent. The catch is when that reunification should take place. Six in ten (61%) want reunification to take place gradually, with only 17 percent preferring rapid reunification.

This makes sense. The most likely scenario which leads to rapid reunification is the collapse of North Korea. What such a collapse would entail is unclear, but there is high probability of chaos that could spill over into South Korea. But gradual reunification is highly unlikely to take place. North Korea is stable, nuclear-armed, and likely unwilling to seek a negotiated reunification with the South.

Of course, the form of reunification is also important. In a recent survey conducted by MBC and Korea Research just 8 percent want to see the current political situation continue—the Koreas as two independent countries. That fits with the above finding that nearly eight in ten currently support reunification. But there is also little appetite for full reunification. Just 22 percent favor that outcome. Instead, a majority (52%) support a form of integration that allows for freedom to visit and increasing exchanges. (A further 15 percent prefer a confederation, allowing both countries to keep their own systems under one flag.)

The upcoming summit will likely do little to shift the attitudes of the South Korean public when it comes to reunification. A quick reunification will continue to be the least favored option, with more wanting to take a wait and see approach. President Moon’s pragmatic approach, as covered in last week’s post, means he will focus on increasing inter-Korean exchanges, including family reunions.

But the South Korean public is experienced enough to know that the long-term success of inter-Korean relations is out of the hands of South Korea. Instead, it will rely on a cooperative North Korea. Given history, that cooperation is unlikely to last. And when North Korea leaves the table, South Koreans will probably shift once again towards viewing the status quo as the best option on the Korean Peninsula.

About

Dina Smeltz joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February 2012 as a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy, and directed the Council’s 2012 survey of American public opinion (see Foreign Policy in the New Millennium).  She has nearly 20 years of experience in designing and fielding international social, political and foreign policy surveys.

As the director of research in the Middle East and South Asia division (2001-2007) and analyst/director of the European division (1992-2004) in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department’s Office of Research, Dina conducted over a hundred surveys in these regions and regularly briefed senior government officials on key research findings. Her experience includes mass public and elite surveys as well as qualitative research.  She has written numerous policy-relevant reports on Arab, Muslim and South Asian regional attitudes toward political, economic, social and foreign policy issues.  Her writing also includes policy briefs and reports on the post-1989 political transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, and European attitudes toward a wide range foreign policy issues including globalization, European integration, immigration, NATO, and European security.

With a special emphasis research in post-conflict situations (informally referred to as a “combat pollster”), Dina has worked with research teams in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel-Palestinian Territories and in Iraq (2003-2005), where she was one of the few people on the ground who could accurately report average Iraqis impressions of the postwar situation.  In the past three years, Dina has consulted for several NGOs and research organizations on projects spanning women’s development in Afghanistan, civil society in Egypt and evaluating voter education efforts in Iraq.

Dina has an MA from the University of Michigan and a BS from Pennsylvania State University.

Feel free to email Dina with comments or questions at dsmeltz@thechicagocouncil.org

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