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In this paper, EAI research associate Jinkyung Baek and Handong University Professor Won Gon Park use the results of a public opinion survey conducted by EAI and the content of a policy debate as a basis to assess the mid-term performance of Moon Jae-in’s administration. In the opinion survey, respondents had the lowest opinion of Moon’s policy towards North Korea (4.5 out of 10) as compared to his overall diplomatic policy (ranging from 4.5 to 5.0). A significant number of respondents (49.8%) also indicated that unstable inter-Korean relations were a major threat South Koreans are currently facing. The authors suggest there is a need to re-examine the idea that reconciliation between the two Koreas and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula form a virtuous cycle, and emphasize that to achieve such a cycle Moon’s administration must embrace a balanced approach to EAI’s complex four-point strategy of engagement, internal transformation, sanctions, and deterrence.
Moon Jae-in’s administration took office in May of 2017 and presented the goal of their North Korea policy as establishing “peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.” Specifically, their strategies included strengthening security and responsibility for national defense, promoting reconciliation and cooperation between the two Koreas while leading international cooperation through diplomacy, and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In accordance with these strategies and governance tasks, Moon’s administration held firm in seeking dialogue and compromise throughout 2017 despite numerous provocations from North Korea. As a result, they were able to successfully achieve inter-Korean dialogue in 2018. However, following the breakdown in negotiations between North Korea and the US at the Hanoi Summit in February of 2019, Kim Jong Un pledged during his speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly in April to readjust inter-Korean relations. Since this declaration, North Korea has thoroughly removed South Korea from its priority list, instead focusing on US-DPRK relations. The importance and seriousness of the security issues on the Korean Peninsula, which has wavered back and forth between calm and turbulence, emerged in the public opinion survey conducted by EAI to assess the Moon administration’s mid-term performance as well. The survey was conducted over a period of six days, from October 24-29, 2019, among 1,000 adults aged 19 and over via telephone and email.
Perceptions of Security on the Korean Peninsula and the North Korea Threat
According to the survey, 31.2% of South Koreans felt that the situation on the Peninsula was unstable, while 27.2% indicated they felt it was stable (Figure 1). These results reveal a wide gap in the perceptions of South Koreans on the stability of the Korean Peninsula.
Figure 1. What is the current security situation on the Korean Peninsula?
While South Koreans appear to have somewhat differing opinions on the overall security situation, there was relative consensus as to the biggest threat factor facing the country. As shown in Figure 2, 49.8% of respondents selected unstable inter-Korean relations for this question. When asked which neighboring country posed the greatest threat, respondents overwhelmingly chose the nuclear weapons and missiles being developed by Kim Jong Un’s regime (Figure 3). The fact that 54.6% of respondents felt that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development pose a greater threat to South Korea than Abe’s militarism or the Trump administration’s America First policy is indicative of just how serious of a threat North Korea is perceived to be.
Figure 2. What are the biggest threat factors facing South Korea? (First and second choice ranked)
Figure 3. Which neighboring country poses the greatest threat to South Korea?(First and second choice ranked)
A Negative Outlook for the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula
As part of the effort towards denuclearization and building a peace structure on the Korean Peninsula, three inter-Korean summits and two US-DPRK summits were held in 2018 and 2019 as well as the recent meeting in Stockholm between the US and the DPRK. Thanks to these summits, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have lessened. However, South Koreans have continued to watch North Korea’s ongoing nuclear and missile provocations from 2017 to 2019 and unsurprisingly remain skeptical about the potential for these efforts to bear any fruit. It would appear that the majority of South Koreans have lost faith in Chairman Kim’s willingness to denuclearize.
When asked about the likelihood of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, the majority of survey respondents (33.3%) indicated that they believed denuclearization would be achieved, but it would take a long time. Just 2.3% of respondents stated they believed it would occur in the relatively near future. In contrast, 18.2% of respondents said that denuclearization would not happen, and 20.7% indicated they had never thought it would happen. As in the past, it would appear that the majority of South Koreans are not holding their breath expecting North Korea to denuclearize soon.
Figure 4. How likely is it that the Korean Peninsula will denuclearize?
We can also see this negative outlook on North Korean denuclearization in the responses to the question about Kim Jong Un’s perceived willingness to denuclearize. As shown in Figure 5, when asked how much faith respondents had in Kim Jong Un’s willingness to denuclearize, just 13.7% of respondents selected “a great deal of faith” or “some faith,” while 64.6% said that they had no faith. This means that a staggering 50.9% more respondents had a negative rather than a positive outlook. The difference in the responses to the same question in the 2018 survey was just 30%, providing clear evidence that the divide in public opinion is growing.
Figure 5. How much faith do you have in Chairman Kim Jong Un’s willingness to denuclearize?
Perceptions of Moon Jae-in’s Policy towards North Korea
Moon Jae-in’s administration established “peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula” as the goal of its North Korea policy, and has continued to work towards denuclearizing the Peninsula and engaging in dialogue with the regime. However, despite the fact that policy towards North Korea was one of the main tasks of this administration, public perceptions rated the government’s success with this policy at just 4.5 out of 10. This rating was nearly identical to the public perception of policy towards Japan (5.0), the US (4.6), and policy towards China (4.6), and was the lowest of the four.
Figure 6. Midterm Assessment of Moon Jae-in’s Performance (Out of 10 points)
When the responses to this question are broken down by age, it becomes apparent that respondents in their 40s had a more positive outlook on Moon Jae-in’s performance with North Korea policy, rating it a 5.5, or 1 point higher than the overall average. In contrast, respondents in their 60s and 70s gave the administration a rating of 3.5, indicating a negative perception overall (Figure 7).
Figure 7. Assessment of Moon Jae-in’s Performance (by age group) (Out of 10 points)
The Tasks Ahead for True Peace and Prosperity on the Korean Peninsula
Amidst the difficulties encountered by the policies of the Moon administration to create peace and prosperity on the Peninsula, South Koreans seem keen at the prospect of strengthening inter-Korean exchanges with a relatively high number, 27.1%, selecting this as a task for the government. Respondents seemed to consider this more urgent than cooperation with other countries in Northeast Asia, as just 22.9% responded that cooperation was essential to push ahead with North Korean denuclearization, 6.9% said that it was important to strengthen strategic cooperation with China, and 19.4% said that it was necessary to restore ROK-Japan relations. Moreover, an impressive 26.2% of respondents indicated that they felt it was very important to make efforts to unite public opinion regardless of age, ideology, and region in order to counter external threats to the nation.
Figure 8. Which tasks are important to mitigate outside threats? (First and second choice ranked)
Figure 9 also reveals a similar order of priorities as Figure 8, as respondents chose policy towards North Korean when asked which issues the Moon administration should consider first. We can see in Figure 9 that 26.3% of respondents chose uniting public opinion and 21.7% selected expanding inter-Korean exchanges. Following these figures were 18.1% of South Koreans who believed that it is necessary to maintain economic sanctions against North Korea for denuclearization and 15.2% who prioritized strengthening security arrangements. The results seem to show a need to consider bolstering measures against North Korea as well.
Figure 9. What should Moon Jae-in’s priority be?
The public says that South Korea needs to continue building up its national defenses and strengthen its security architecture. The threat posed by North Korea is not limited to nuclear weapons: it also comprises chemical and biological weapons as well as conventional methods of warfare. Taking this into consideration, the survey asked respondents whether South Korea should continue to build up its national defenses if after North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons and missiles and a peace structure between the two Koreas is achieved, North Korea still retains its biological, chemical, and convention weapons. The response was an overwhelming 84% in favor of doing so, nearly seven times greater than those who responded negatively (Figure 10). This result demonstrates that the threat which South Koreans perceive from North Korea stems from a fear of their entire weapons system and goes beyond the nuclear weapons and missiles that are the focus of the international community.
Figure 10. Will South Korea’s national defense capabilities increase after denuclearization?
The policy goal put forth by the Moon administration of bringing “peace and prosperity to the Korean Peninsula” is headed in the right direction. The administration’s policy of approaching the principle of North Korea’s denuclearization from a foundation of ROK-US cooperation is heading in the right direction as well. Specifically, South Korea’s response to the clear demand of the North Korean regime broadcast through the KCNA in December 2018 for “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” establishing the goal of “focusing on multilateral efforts to lead North Korea down the path of denuclearization” is in line with the policy directions of both the US and the international community as a whole. South Korea’s emphasis on the importance of drawing a roadmap to complete denuclearization comprising a freeze followed by elimination, as well as on the first steps in the initial stages of North Korea’s denuclearization, as also in accordance with US policy as the US works to negotiate with North Korea on the nuclear issue. The portion of the Moon administration’s policy of “preparing a roadmap, pushing ahead with negotiations for a peace structure depending on the progress made in denuclearization, and concluding a peace agreement as the final step of resolving the North Korean nuclear issue” remove all doubts that the administration is making an early push for a peace agreement.
However, the idea that reconciliation between the two Koreas and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula form a virtuous cycle begs for a second look. The government’s policy that inter-Korean reconciliation can give rise to the impetus for North Korean denuclearization is limited in two ways. First, there are a variety of measures restraining the potential for inter-Korean reconciliation and North Korean denuclearization such as the economic sanctions imposed against the regime. Moreover, this policy is overly reliant on North Korea. Even with sanctions, it may appear as though the two Koreas are close in terms of arranging reunions for separated family members, trust-building measures between the two militaries, and so on, but none of this is possible without North Korea’s cooperation. Kim Jong Un’s speech in April during the SPA criticizing the South, declaring that they would sever ties, and generally continue to exclude South Korea leave Moon’s administration in the position of unilaterally pursuing inter-Korean reconciliation. As a result, South Korea is suffering from weakened negotiating power with the North and declining confidence of the international community.
The situation is also apparent in the results of the survey, in which respondents indicated that, as in the past, they not only favor cooperation with North Korea to achieve denuclearization and peace on the Peninsula, they also believe that it is necessary to continue to impose comprehensive economic sanctions. To achieve true peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, the Moon administration must in its latter days abandon its unconditional pursuit of inter-Korean reconciliation and instead embrace a balanced approach to EAI’s complex four-point strategy of engagement, internal transformation, sanctions, and deterrence.