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

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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