By Karl Friedhoff, Program Officer, Public Opinion Studies Center, The Asan Institute for Policy Studies
North Korea’s third nuclear test brought the traditional condemnations, but a newer feature of the media coverage was the lack of reaction of the South Korean public. However, this reaction is not new—in the National Assembly election in April and December’s presidential election less than 5 percent said that issues related to North Korea were the deciding factor in their vote despite missile launches that occurred around the same time. Some have taken this lack of reaction as a signal that the South Korean public does not take such provocations seriously. However, analysis of South Korean public opinion shows that this is not the case.
South-North relations not seen as national priority
Public reaction has been muted because South-North relations have not been an important issue to South Koreans over the past year (Figure 1). Instead, the focus has been on South Korea’s considerable domestic challenges—household debt, wealth disparity, and economic growth have topped the bill. A failed missile launch in April produced only a slight bump in the perceived importance of South-North relations and a successful launch in December produced no bump whatsoever. Following the February 2013 nuclear test there was a 7 percentage point bump from January, but recent history suggests that this will not last.
Muted public response, yes, but still perceived threat
The muted public response to the nuclear test should not be interpreted as the public feeling unthreatened. As Figure 2 shows, Asan’s daily tracking of perceptions on national security capture a negative effect on the positive perception of both current and future national security. However, that affect was short-lived. While the test sparked an 8 percentage point decline in the positive perception of future national security, and a similar decline in current national security perceptions, both rebounded strongly as February came to a close. This suggests that the impact on security perceptions was real, but fleeting, and that the relative importance of South-North relations will fade in the absence of further provocations.
As a part of the Asan Annual Survey in 2011 and 2012, respondents were asked about their threat perceptions regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In both years three-quarters of South Koreans stated that they felt threatened. Moreover, when asked if the North would use those weapons in a renewal of the Korean War, 54 percent and 53 percent, respectively, answered in the affirmative. Further, since 2010 the perceived threat of war has grown by nearly 10 percentage points each year. While in 2010 40 percent stated that a renewal of the Korean War was possible, that number rose to 59 percent in 2012. Clearly, there may be a lack of outward reaction, but the perceived threat of North Korea is very real and growing.
Negotiations favored, but economic sanctions also supported
Despite repeated provocations President Park’s stated North Korea policy is unlikely to shift. Asan annual surveys from 2010-2011 show a clear majority (67%) have supported her directive of trust building with potential engagement in an effort to improve relations with North Korea (Figure 3). Moreover, when asked about the best policy options (Figure 3), a plurality (38%) preferred that South Korea negotiate and cooperate with North Korea, and 30 percent preferred continued economic sanctions. There was a surprising amount of support (22%) for the consideration of a firm military response, but here the key is to highlight the use of the word “consider”. In a separate question asked this February 13-15, six in ten (59%) opposed a preemptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear test site due to the threat of war.
Despite assurances from the United States, the South Korean public is ambivalent on whether or not the United States would employ its nuclear forces in the event of a North Korean nuclear strike on South Korea. In 2012, 48 percent stated that they believed the United States would do so, a 7 percentage point decrease from 2011.However, this ambivalence on the U.S. nuclear umbrella does not extend to the alliance itself—support for the alliance is at an all-time high, with 94 percent support in 2012. Moreover, 61 percent cite the United States as the country that South Korea should cooperate with most closely to solve the North Korea nuclear problem—30% cited China (from the February 13-14, 2013 survey).
Growing support for a nuclear South Korea
The calls for a domestic weapons program are not out of line with public sentiment. Following the February 2013 nuclear test, 66% of the South Korean public supported a domestic nuclear weapons program—a 10 percentage point increase from 2010 (Figure 4). A majority of all age cohorts except the 20s (49%) were in favor. While there was some division on this across the political spectrum, it is important to note that even among self-identified progressives 58% percent were in favor, while 71 percent of conservatives stated the same.
The policy implications of the public opinion reported here are far-reaching. While the Park administration will begin its term by largely maintaining the hardline policies of the Lee administration, the door for engagement will be left open. What is more concerning, however, is the increasing talk and support for a nuclear weapons program. Such a decision by South Korea would have important implications not only for South Korea but for international arms control regimes. Those who support such a program have already made their case. Those who oppose such a program have yet to clearly lay out how such a program would damage South Korea’s energy, food, and national security rather than bolster it.
Note: This is a condensed and updated version of a report produced by the Public Opinion Studies Center at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. The original report can be found here.
It combines the results from multiple surveys conducted since 2010, with the most recent data coming from two surveys conducted immediately following North Korea’s third nuclear test on February 12, 2013. Where necessary, dates for the appropriate surveys are footnoted. More information on each survey can be found in the appendix. Also, there were no survey results for February 10 due to the Lunar New Year holiday.