[WHY] South Koreans and their apparent lack of concern over their northern neighbors
Tens of thousands of deaths in Seoul alone, and possibly a million casualties in South Korea: This is the likely death toll of just the first few weeks of a second Korean War, according to various experts.
Today, 25 million people in the South live within 50 miles of North Korean artillery embedded deep in the northern slopes above the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean Peninsula. Even more worrisome are the North’s few dozen nuclear weapons and its advancing ballistic and cruise missiles, not to mention its undisclosed but likely existent cache of biological and chemical weapons.
Back in 1994, before the North possessed nuclear weapons or the missiles to deliver them, the U.S. intelligence estimate of a million deaths in the South was enough to stop the Clinton administration from launching pre-emptive strikes to eliminate the regime’s nuclear facilities.
Almost thirty years, more than a hundred missile launches and six nuclear weapons tests later, Pyongyang’s state media still issues apocalyptic threats to “completely annihilate” Seoul — but South Koreans appear to tune them out, while South Korean military officials respond to every North Korean provocation with the now predictable refrain: “Our military maintains a constant state of readiness.”
So are South Koreans genuinely not concerned about North Korea — and are they confident they will be protected should the unthinkable happen?
Do South Koreans even think about North Korea?
On the surface, South Koreans appear less concerned about what goes on north of the DMZ and more preoccupied with domestic issues, like those surrounding real estate policy and the economy.
Despite a flurry of North Korean missile tests in the lead-up to the March presidential election, two out of three South Koreans surveyed in a Feb. 3-4 poll of 1,006 adults by the Korea Society Opinion Institute (KSOI) and the Kukmin Ilbo newspaper said the North Korean missile launches over the previous month would not influence their choice for the country’s next president.
“Who has time to worry about North Korea? I think we’re all just busy trying to make ends meet,” said Lee Young-sun, a 50-year-old restaurant chef, when asked about how often she thinks about North Korea.
Lee, who described herself as politically apathetic, said, “If I have to pick one issue that I thought about during the election, it would be unemployment and real estate prices.”
Kim Dong-min, a 28-year-old IT worker, described a similar set of priorities. “I was worried mostly about economic policy during the lead-up to the presidential elections,” he said, adding that “things have been tough for millennials.”
According to a poll of 1,000 adults by Ipsos and the Korea Economic Daily from Jan. 20 to 23, Lee and Kim’s concerns were in line with 44.6 percent of respondents, who ranked real estate policy as the most important issue for the next presidential administration, followed by prosecution and judicial overhaul at 14.9 percent and unemployment at 11.4 percent. Only 7 percent checked North Korea policy as their top priority.
The low ranking of North Korea as an election issue seems to indicate that South Koreans barely think about their northern brethren at all — and there is some evidence to show that this may be at least somewhat true.
In a poll conducted by U.S.-based think tank 38 North in September 2020, the majority, or 54.5 percent, of 1,200 South Korean respondents said they never think about North Korea, while 41 percent said they thought about their neighbor once or twice a week. According to the same survey, an even larger majority of 69.17 percent of the respondents said they never think about North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
“Honestly, I never think about North Korea,” said Cho Sung-hyun, a 29-year-old South Korean student based in New York. When asked the same survey question, Kim answered succinctly: “Zero.”
Choi Kyung-hui, chief of the Seoul-based South and North Development (SAND) think tank, says the lack of interest in the North Korean military threat is likely tied to the lengthy peace that has held since the armistice was signed, all but officially ending the 1950-53 Korean War.
“While the war did not end with a peace treaty, hostilities have not broken out again in the past 70 years,” Choi remarked. “The only people who remember the war now are elderly people in their 70s or older, and they are in the minority.”
Choi also noted that repeated warnings about North Korea under South Korea’s authoritarian leaders during the Cold War has dulled the public perception of an active threat from Pyongyang.
“The North Korea issue was exploited in the past for domestic political purposes, so its mention to younger generations who have grown up without their own wartime memories can come across as nothing more than a scare tactic,” she explained.
But Park Ju-hwa, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), cautioned that survey responses may not only vary depending on how questions are worded, but also obfuscate the depth of South Korean feelings regarding North Korea.
“North Korea is a matter of little interest to South Koreans, but, ironically, they are still highly sensitive to what happens to the North,” Park said. “For example, when KINU asked in a survey, ‘Is there a need for reunification?’ there were large intergenerational disparities, with more older people saying yes and more younger people saying no. But when we asked people, ‘What should inter-Korean relations look like in the future?’ most respondents picked the scenario where people could travel freely across the peninsula,” he explained.
In a word, even if survey responses suggest South Koreans don’t give much thought to North Korea or its nuclear weapons, that is likely not the whole picture.
Do South Koreans not fear a possible war?
Despite the impression of calm, there is evidence that South Koreans do care — and worry — about the military threat posed by North Korea.
According to a July 25 survey by SAND that questioned 1,000 adults, not only did 71.6 percent of respondents say that they had little or no trust in the North Korean regime, 45.9 percent said they believed it possible that Pyongyang could try and start another war — a figure close to the 49.9 percent who said they believed such a scenario to be impossible.
The fact that almost half of South Koreans believe a second Korean War could occur seems strange considering 38 North’s finding that over 90 percent never or barely think about their ominous neighbor — a phenomenon that Choi attributes to South Koreans having grown accustomed to the long-running threat.
“From a psychological view, it appears that our people have gotten used to the threat just as a person gets used to chronic back pain,” Choi said. “When fresh pain arises, one runs to the doctor — like our government and media reacting every time there is a new incident involving North Korea — but then quickly learns to live with it.”
Lee, who said she only thinks about North Korea “when it pops up on Naver,” described herself as feeling “numb” to the military threat posed by Pyongyang. “I think about it for a bit [when I see news stories], but even then I don’t feel much of a sense of danger.”
Cho said he felt society was moving past North Korean issues due to disillusionment. “I heard a lot more about North Korea in school and through the news when I was a kid in the early 2000s, because everyone at the time seemed hopeful that reunification might happen soon.” recalled Cho, but added he has since lost interest “because [the North Korean government] keeps lashing out, so their word is meaningless now.”
Park from KINU had a slightly different explanation for South Koreans’ lack of interest in North Korea despite their awareness of the possibility of war.
“There have been so many provocations by North Korea over the years, such as the North’s planting of a landmine near a South Korean guard post in 2015, or their sixth nuclear test in 2017, but not one has led to a full resumption of hostilities,” he explained.
“South Koreans are not only accustomed to this cycle of provocations, but they also feel a sense of helplessness because they believe there is not much we or anyone can realistically do to stop North Korea from doing what it wants,” he added.
Are South Koreans confident they can be defended?
During times of tense inter-Korean relations — such as now, when a seventh nuclear test is widely expected — or in 2016, when the North had just conducted its fifth nuclear test, the South Korean government has reminded the public that it has a contingency plan to pre-emptively eliminate Pyongyang’s most lethal weapons and leadership if an imminent attack is detected.
First divulged to South Korean lawmakers in 2016 and recently mentioned again under the Yoon Suk-yeol administration, Seoul’s deterrence-through-punishment strategy vis-à-vis Pyongyang is composed of three components: Kill Chain, which relies on surface-to-surface missiles and earth-penetrating weapons to destroy North Korean missile-launching capabilities before missiles can be fired; Korea Missile Defense (KMD), which would destroy incoming missiles mid-air with a mixture of Patriot missiles and Korean medium-range surface-to-air (KM-SAM) missiles; and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR), which would target individuals in North Korea’s leadership and military command.
But some experts say that the South Korean strategy is not completely up to date with recent advances in North Korean missile capabilities in the last five years.
“The majority of studies underestimate the importance of newly tested [North Korean] short-range missiles, such as KN-23 and KN-24, as well as two technical elements: the missiles’ precision and their ability to penetrate antimissile defenses,” says Antoine Bondaz, director of the Korea Program for the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.
“The ‘K3’ strategy is premised on a full military confrontation, but the advances of North Korean missile technology in the last five years give Pyongyang the ability to conduct limited, precise and conventional missile strikes, which also gives it options in terms of the level of escalation that it didn’t have before,” he cautioned.
Not many surveys on the public approval of this “K3” strategy exist. The most recent — a poll commissioned by conservative online media outlet Dailian from Jan. 14 to 15 — found that 60.9 percent of respondents agreed with the basic premise of pre-emptively striking North Korea should preparations for an attack on the South be detected.
But whether South Koreans believe their country can adequately defend itself in the case of a North Korean attack is a different question.
“I don’t think we should launch a pre-emptive attack on the North,” said Cho, who said he preferred a “show of force” in response to a major provocation because he saw the South Korean military as “not very strong.”
Kim, who recently completed his mandatory two-year stint serving in the Army, said his experience showed him Seoul was not ready for war. “Our soldiers aren’t equipped or trained well enough to fight against the hardened North Korean military,” he said. His sentiments were echoed by Lee, who shook her head when asked if she has faith in South Korea’s military, answering, “Not particularly.”
They are not outliers in their feelings about the South Korean military’s capabilities. According to SAND’s July survey, just 41.6 percent of respondents said they saw the South Korean government as adequately prepared for war.
While this figure appears to indicate low public confidence in Seoul’s ability to defend itself, Park cautioned that the survey result again requires context to ascertain South Koreans’ sense of security.
“The SAND poll was taken at a time when President Yoon’s approval ratings were hovering around 30 percent,” Park said. “If anything, it shows that people still rate the military’s capabilities higher than the government’s competence in other areas,” he added.
Another factor in South Koreans’ resilience in the face of the North Korean threat, despite their apparently lukewarm confidence in their government’s military capabilities, is their country’s defensive alliance with the United States.
According to an Asan Institute survey conducted in March, 88.9 percent of respondents said they believed the United States would intervene in a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, suggesting overwhelming faith that the country would not be alone in the event of war.
“Both historically and strategically, we have an invaluable alliance with the United States,” said You Jae-hyuk, a 30-year-old lawyer. “I believe our two countries share many cultural and economic values, and our cooperation is beneficial to both sides.”
Cho said he felt more confident about South Korea’s defense with the United States as the country’s ally. “The U.S. military is the most powerful in the world, and I’m certain North Korea wouldn’t try to attack us when they know that kind of force is on our side,” he said.
Belying such confidence, however, are changes in support for the continued presence of the United States Forces Korea (USFK) in South Korea according to the state of inter-Korean relations.
According to the Asan survey, public support for the USFK was above 80 percent in both 2016 and 2017, years in which tensions ran high and North Korea conducted multiple major weapons tests. After declining to 76.3 percent in 2018 and 72 percent in 2020 — a period of high diplomatic engagement between the two Koreas and the United States — support for the U.S. military presence rose once more to 82.1 percent this year after talks broke down and North Korea resumed testing missiles.
The level of public support for the USFK’s continued deployment to South Korea could be thus interpreted as an indicator of how much South Koreans believe, in that moment, that the U.S. military is necessary for their country’s security.
Kim, who earlier said he views the South Korean military as ill-prepared for war, remarked, “The U.S. military is our surest means of protection.”
How might South Koreans’ feelings change in the future?
South Koreans on the whole appear to be psychologically resilient, or perhaps resigned, to the security threat emanating from North Korea, but this may change if they are served a fresh reminder of the North’s destructive potential in the form of a seventh nuclear test.
In a February report, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs issued a finding that 71 percent of South Korean survey respondents supported the development of a domestic nuclear weapons program, suggesting that despite their apparent indifference to the North, the South Korean public is strongly dissatisfied with the status quo and lacks confidence in deterrence through the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Cho said South Korea’s lack of its own nuclear deterrent sat uneasily with him. “If they keep their nuclear weapons but we don’t develop our own, we’re choosing to rely on someone else to protect us,” he said.
While Lee said she doesn’t know enough about nuclear armament, the Russian invasion of Ukraine this past year weighed heavily in her thoughts on the subject.
“When I look at Ukraine, which I read gave up nuclear weapons many year ago, it doesn’t seem like someone else’s tragedy,” she said. “That could be us.”
Yet others remained skeptical that Seoul pursuing its own nuclear weapons would add to the country’s security.
“I disagree with the idea of us, or any other country becoming a nuclear weapons state,” said Kim. “Adding more weapons — especially deadlier ones — could make war a more tempting prospect, and it’s important that we still try to resolve problems through dialogue.”
Others, like You, expressed concern over the consequences of Seoul breaking the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
“I fear there is more to lose diplomatically and militarily if we were to become a nuclear weapons state because it would sour our relationships with other countries,” he said, adding, “I believe there is more to be gained if Korea worked on its reputation as a global peacemaker.”
BY MICHAEL LEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]