South Koreans' support for reunification grows despite attack concerns

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A view of the Korean Demilitarized Zone separating Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north and the Republic of Korea in the south, on Aug. 1, 2012. The DMZ stretches 2-kilometers apart on either side. (Armando R. Limon/Stars and Stripes)
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A view of the Korean Demilitarized Zone separating Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north and the Republic of Korea in the south, on Aug. 1, 2012. The DMZ stretches 2-kilometers apart on either side. (Armando R. Limon/Stars and Stripes)

South Koreans' support for reunification grows despite attack concerns

by: Ashley Rowland and Yoo Kyong Chang | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: November 05, 2014

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean support for reunification with North Korea appears to be growing, even though an overwhelming majority believe Pyongyang is likely to launch another armed attack, according to a recently released survey.

The annual poll was conducted this summer by the Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, but the results were not released until last month. It revealed what, at first glance, seemed to be disparate attitudes toward the isolated communist regime.

For instance, some 89.3 percent of respondents said they feel threatened by the North’s nuclear weapons, a jump of nearly 11 percentage points from 2013. Eighty-eight percent said they believe Pyongyang will not give up its nukes, which it has threatened to use against the South and the United States.

Yet 45.3 percent — up nearly five percentage points since 2013 — said they viewed North Korea as an “object of cooperation” that could help improve the South’s economy and ease unemployment by providing a new market for South Korean products.

The number of respondents who viewed the North as an “enemy” dropped to 13.9 percent, down 2.5 percentage points from last year.

The survey attributed the growing support for reunification to heavy campaigning by the South Korean government — which maintains a policy of promoting eventual unification — and conservative media.

Chang Yong Suk, a senior researcher at the institute, said South Koreans are used to the “chronic” threat posed by the North’s nuclear weapons. But anxiety about a confrontation has increased in the past year for a number of reasons, from periodic launches of North Korean rockets to the South’s emphasis on responding with force to future attacks.

The December 2013 execution of Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle and close adviser, also underscored the often-belligerent regime’s ruthlessness.

“I think they feel a great deal of frustration and distrust about North Korea’s behavior,” Chang said, adding that many believe Seoul should implement policies intended to promote deeper reforms by Pyongyang, along with opening of the country and a halt to its human rights abuses.

The two Koreas have had minor skirmishes along their disputed maritime border in recent weeks, highlighting the constant possibility that a small clash could quickly spiral out of control. Last month, the South’s Ministry of National Defense said the North had announced its goal of unifying the two Koreas in 2015 and was preparing for full-scale war — an announcement that made many in the South nervous.

Although the two countries have grown apart since the end of the Korean War six decades ago, eventual reunification has long been a given for many, if not most, in South Korea.

“For South Koreans, the North Koreans are not strangers. South Koreans believe we’re the same Korean people,” Chang said. “So consensus about unification is still high even if North Korea has been heightening tensions.”

Some 55.9 percent of respondents said reunification is in the South’s best interest, up more than 7 percentage points since the previous year, according to the poll.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has emphasized the importance of trust-building measures with the North combined with the threat of a strong response to military provocations. But she has also advocated a more coordinated push for reunification.

In August, Seoul held the first meeting of its Unification Preparation Committee, which Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae has said will “draw up a blueprint for the unification of the Korean Peninsula that all people can agree upon.”

South Korea and Germany launched an advisory panel, consisting of professors and government officials, last month to study possible lessons from German reunification and how they could apply here.

The survey questioned 1,200 people. The margin of error was listed as plus or minus 2.8 percent

rowland.ashley@stripes.com

chang.yookyong@stripes.com

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