Kim Jong-Il's Death - Bonus Question: Do South Koreans Care About Reunification?

Dear Korean,

I heard B.R. Myers on a radio interview recently. His idea of the biggest threat to the regime is something like this:
"The biggest risk to the regime is that the North Korean public is growing increasingly aware that the South Koreans basically just don't care about the North. The regime has convinced through propaganda that the North needs to sacrifice and lead difficult, poor lives so they can one day kick the Yankees out of the South and reunify. But here's the problem. The South doesn't actually hate America. The South doesn't want to live under the North Korean leader (whoever it is). The South really just has no interest in reunification and is scared of the costs. And the North Korean public is very slowly realizing this."
How convincing does the Korean find this argument? Is North Korea a subject that most Southerners are not particularly interested in? Whats your take on this argument?

Corey N.

This question was in the comment section of an earlier post. Against his questions policy, the Korean will feature this question because it is quite relevant to the current situation. The Korean thinks that, as knowledgeable about North Korea as Prof. Myers is, he is slightly overstating his case.

Let's take this question in stages -- the first level is: do South Koreans care about North Korea?

This is not to say that Prof. Myers is doing this, but it is very easy to misinterpret the way South Koreans feel about reunification. From an outside point of view, one may fairly surmise that South Koreans must think about North Korea constantly, every day, all the time, because North Korea presents such a huge existential threat to South Korea. But when faced with reality, South Koreans rarely think about North Korea because there is not much more one can do other than ignoring the danger to some degree. The situation is not unlike post-9/11 New York, where New Yorkers were able to continue with their lives despite living with the possibility of another horrendous terrorist attack. And often, outside observers over-interpret this type of indifference into something more.

But this is a mistake -- the fact that South Koreans do not constantly talk about North Korea and plan their lives around North Korea does not mean South Koreans do not care about North Korea. In fact, South Koreans care a great deal about North Korea. To give a reference point, South Koreans (as a whole) care more about North Korea than Americans  (as a whole) care about gay rights. North Korea is a huge social issue in South Korea such that a lot of South Korean public policies revolve around North Korea and a lot of bright South Korean minds are focused on how to deal with North Korea.

(More after the jump.)

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If we accept that South Koreans generally care about North Korea, the next question is -- do South Koreans want reunification about North Korea?

On this question, the answer is somewhat subtle. The fairest way of characterizing the sentiment would be that South Koreans are conflicted, but slightly leaning more toward wanting reunification. At the level of the general public, there are sincerely held sentiments going both ways, and both ways are quite reasonable. South Korean public believes in Korean nationalism, and thinks that the tyranny in North Korea must end through reunification. At the same time, South Korean public is genuinely worried about the potential chaos and cost following the reunification.

But the critical next question is -- does this South Korean public ambivalence matter? Finally at this point, the question is not a matter of facts, but of opinions. And here, the Korean believes that it does not matter that much, because of the reason that the Korean pointed out in an earlier post: Korea is a leadership-oriented society.

Again at the level of general public, there is genuine ambivalence about reunification. On any given day, depending on the circumstances, that ambivalence can tilt more in favor of or against reunification. But there is no meaningful group of people who strongly clamor for reunification right away, nor is there a meaningful group of people who vocally oppose reunification. In such a situation, it is very important to focus on the sentiment toward reunification at the leadership level, not at the general public level -- because it will be South Korea's leadership that will determine the direction toward which South Korea will head.

South Korea's leadership (i.e. politicians, journalists, professors and other opinion-makers) by and large reflects the public's ambivalence. But importantly, at the leadership level, there is a group of people who are vocally in favor of reunification. On the other hand, there is no group of people at the leadership level who are sincerely opposed to reunification. At most, there may be some leaders who express deep concern over the cost of the reunification. In this type of situation, South Korean public can be persuaded to favor reunification, despite their reservation.

And that is pretty much exactly what is happening now. Although there may be moments when the South Korean public feels negatively about reunification, such negativity almost never percolates to the leadership level such that there is a sustained movement away from reunification. That may happen in a decade if North Korea shows no sign of change and the generation of young South Koreans who knew North Korea only as a nuisance come of age in the mainstream Korean society. But as of now, such movement is not there. Given this, Prof. Myers' point that South Koreans "just don't care about the north" or that South Korea "just has no interest in reunification" is an overstatement.

But the Korean is willing to give Prof. Myers a benefit of doubt. Perhaps the overstatement was because it was a radio interview, in which one can be a little more hurried with word choices compared to a written work. And at any rate, South Korea's interest in North Korea is not Prof. Myers' main point. His main point is that North Koreans' realizing the true conditions of South Korea presents a threat to the North Korean regime, because it weakens the regime's propaganda that says the people of South Korea are constantly looking toward North Korea to be rescued from the imperialistic wolves from America. And that much is most certainly true.

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