The emotional pendulum swings in Korea are mesmerizing — and predictable. First there was the euphoria triggered by last month’s historic summit between the two Korean leaders. Then there was the inevitable reaction as more sober heads pointed out the difficulties that lie ahead: continuing talks to decrease tension, demilitarizing the Korean Peninsula, and absorbing the tremendous cost of reunification. The cycle will be repeated as tangible results trickle in.
The headlines tell only half the story. The summit was historic, but it was not a break with history. Attitudes in South Korea have been changing for some time. People are looking at the world through a different lens these days. According to a recent study by the Rand Corporation, the influential U.S. think tank, South Koreans are “beginning to move beyond both the historical and Cold War legacies in their thinking about Korea’s long-term security.”*
South Korea’s new outlook is wide, encompassing the North, its own allies across the Pacific and its neighbor Japan. Understanding this evolution is as important as the summit itself.
The election of longtime dissident Kim Dae Jung as president in 1998 is the key symbol of change in South Korea. During the tension-filled days of the Cold War, the election of a man like Kim would have been unthinkable. Kim was thought to be unreliable and too soft on the North. Today, while Koreans may have been skeptical about his “sunshine policy,” they reluctantly embraced it — also impossible a decade ago.
The message is clear. Traditional South Korean anxieties about security have been declining. Even by 1999, opinion polls revealed that less than 13 percent of respondents considered a North Korean invasion “very likely.” While another 46 percent thought an invasion was somewhat likely, it is telling that over 38 percent considered an invasion either somewhat unlikely or very unlikely.
To be sure, South Koreans are still cautious. Nearly one-third still think that war could break out. Nearly 40 percent still sees the North as the enemy and thinks it poses a definite security threat.
But if the threat from the north is diminishing, South Koreans are by no means rushing toward unification. The 1999 poll data showed less than 40 percent of South Koreans were either “very eager” or “somewhat eager” for full unification. Nearly 60 percent were either “somewhat cautious” or “very cautious.” Before the summit, nearly three-quarters believed that reunification would not occur for at least five years; about 40 percent thought it would take more than a decade.
There is growing evidence that going slowly makes economical sense. The German experience has been sobering. Estimates of the cost of reunification run from the hundreds of billions of dollars to the trillions. The longer the wait to reunite, the better the chance of recovery in both Koreas. Economic growth in the North would help close some of the gap between the two countries; continued recovery in the South would help ease the burden of absorption.
Realism is the order of the day. The South Koreans have few illusions. For example, they see China and Japan as their two main long-term rivals. Nearly three-quarters of them see one or the other as their chief economic rival over the next decade. Somewhat fewer, 72 percent, see one or the other as their chief military rival. Curiously, Koreans worry more about China as an economic competitor and Japan as a military competitor.
The news is better than it looks, though. Over time, Japan is seen less and less as a threat. This new view of Japan is evident in other areas as well. For example, when asked what other country should be involved in unification negotiations, Japan is the only country whose involvement elicited increased South Korean support over time. There are lots of reasons why that might be true, but the prospect of a significant financial contributions seems the likeliest explanation.
A more benign view of Japan could result from growing confidence on the part of South Koreans. The percentage of Koreans who believe the Japanese respect them more than quadrupled between 1996 and 1999 (from 3.6 percent to 16 percent), while the number of those who felt disrespect fell from nearly 90 percent to 77 percent during the same time. In contrast, South Korean perceptions of Chinese views held more or less constant.
These changes are evident in other fields as well. Although 46 percent of South Koreans consider Japanese investment in East Asia a negative for Korea, this number is down significantly from 65 percent in 1996. Those who consider such investment positive for Korea rose from less than 27 percent to just over 41 percent. The authors of the Rand study concluded: “These changes reflect not only a more relaxed attitude toward Japan but also a much broader South Korean acceptance of Japan as a bilateral partner and regional actor.”
For example, when asked how Japan should respond to North Korea’s development of long-range missiles, over 80 percent feel that Japan should take at least some measures. Fifty-nine percent want this to include expanded cooperation with both the United States and South Korea. Although only 16 percent believe Japan should increase its own defense capabilities, this is more than double the percentage of Koreans who believe that Japan should do nothing at all. In other words, a growing number of South Koreans implicitly acknowledge the legitimacy of increased Japanese defense efforts.
When asked what role Japan should play if North Korea invades the South, a little less than one-third of respondents said the Japanese role should be limited to either financial assistance or noncombat support. Nearly 44 percent believe that Korea should accept either Japanese troops or all possible assistance. This is more than twice the number of Koreans who said they should not accept any assistance at all.
Finally, 46 percent of Koreans either “strongly” or “somewhat” support a permanent Japanese seat on the U.N. Security Council. Three years ago only 38 percent supported membership, while 48 percent were opposed. Perhaps more than anything else, this suggests that the perception of Japan has changed from potential aggressor to possible ally — at least if Tokyo acts as a voice for Asian interests.
There is still a long way to go. Over 77 percent of respondents feel that the Japanese look down on them, a figure that tops the two-thirds of South Koreans who thought the Americans were similarly inclined. In contrast, more than two-thirds of South Koreans felt that the Chinese respect them. In 1999, 62 percent of Koreans said they felt the U.S.-South Korea security alliance prevents Japan from becoming a major military power. That is a significant majority, but it’s an improvement over the 71 percent who saw the alliance play this role in 1996.
The Rand authors conclude: “The relatively set convictions that have heretofore characterized South Korean security views appear to be undergoing changes.” Attitudes toward Japan are “dramatically improving.” South Koreans increasingly accept Japan “as a legitimate regional and global actor. There’s a growing sense of Japan as an important security partner.” That sort of news is unlikely to get headlines during the summer flurry of summits, but its impact on Northeast Asia is every bit as important as the historic meeting in Pyongyang.
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