Update on the Korean Peninsula...

A lot has been happening on the Korean Peninsula, both North and South.  In our March newsletter we covered the impeachment of South Korea’s former president Park Geun-hye and public fury over political corruption.  Since then, former President Park has been arrested; the first liberal South Korean president in a decade, Moon Jae-in, has been sworn in; and North Korea has conducted two more missile tests.

North Korea looms as perhaps the globe’s biggest geopolitical threat.  As the situation on the peninsula continues to change, here are some things we’ve learned from recent events:

1)  There’s a new South Korean president who may notsee eye-to-eye with the U.S.

While it hasn’t quite been a week since Moon Jae-in was sworn in as the new South Korean president, we know he will take a softer approach to North Korea.  Moon wants to bring back the “Sunshine Policy” – South Korea’s policy of engaging North Korea through commercial and cultural ties – and work toward closer relations. 

While Moon has said he looks forward to working with the U.S., he also has criticized the U.S. installation of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea, and he’s firmly opposed to any U.S. military action on the peninsula without South Korea’s assent.  How this will weigh against the Trump administration’s harder rhetoric is something we’ll have to see. 

2)  South Korean attitudes toward North Korea are complicated.  

 Moon Jae-in won the presidential election by the widest margin ever.  But there was a stark generational divide in the results. 

Moon, a former human rights lawyer, ran as the candidate of change focused on wiping out corruption and income inequality. That resonated with younger generations, but not older ones: More than 50% of those in their 30s and 40s voted for Moon, but only 24% of those in their 60s and 70s did. 

For many older Koreans, the candidate who appealed more was conservative Hong Joon-pyo, who ran a simple anti-Communist campaign, took a hard line against North Korea, and painted President Moon as a pro-North Leftist.  That says a lot about how complex attitudes toward the North are.

Older Koreans are more likely to feel an affinity with North Korea and favor reunification -- but also emphasize anti-Communist ideology.  In contrast, younger generations are more concerned with domestic economic issues and breaking the chummy ties between government and big business conglomerates.

In a recent survey, 61% of those in their 60s said reunification with the North would be extremely positive.  But those positive feelings dropped to 51% for those in their 50s, 50% for those in their 40s, 38% for those in their 30s, and 32% for those in their 20s.  Only 5% of 20-somethings said they felt shared “bloodlines” with North Koreans.  More were likely to see North Koreans as “different,’ untrustworthy,” or “frightening.”

3)  Security is not number one.

As much as the U.S. news focuses on North Korea, in South Korea it’s not all about North Korea all the time.  National security was an important election issue – but not the most important one.  According to a Gallup Korea Poll, the most important issue was economic revival, and behind that, job creation. Especially for young Koreans, trying to survive in an extremely competitive job market has crowded out national security concerns.

4)  And North Korea?

It’s becoming an increasingly formidable adversary.  For a long time, North Korea’s amateur-ish missile tests looked kind of silly.  But that’s no longer true.  While it was once widely thought that North Korea would trade its nuclear weapons program in a “grand bargain” with the U.S., the consensus now is that it will never give up its program.  North Korea seems dead set on building intercontinental missile capability – and the ability to survive all-out war.  Its willingness to take extreme risks and remain in a perpetual state of “almost-war” presents an extreme challenge for the rest of the world.