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Comparative Analysis of the Views of North and South Koreans on Unification

Kim Philo (Kim Byeong-ro)

Research Fellow
Institute for Peace and Unification Studies
Seoul National University

Choi Kyong-hui

Ph.D. Candidate
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
University of Tokyo

Preparations on many levels will be required to achieve the unification of South and North Korea. But before anything can be done, people in both Koreas must be convinced that they will be able to lead better lives after reunification. Their attitudes would be the cornerstone to the possibility, method and process of rapprochement as seen in Germany`s unification experience.
I. Comparison of Expectations on Unification
In order to understand the values and attitudes toward unification in the two Koreas, this study compares and analyzes the surveys conducted by Gallup Korea at the request of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, Seoul National University. The surveys were done between 2007 and 2011. A total of 1,200 South Koreans aged 19 to 65 and residing across the country responded. For data on North Koreans, 296 North Korean defectors who had settled in the South were interviewed in 2008, another 370 defectors in the South in 2009, and 114 more of them in 2011.
1. Desire for Unification
The desire for reunification differed widely between North and South Koreans. Asked “Do you want reunification?” 53.7 percent of South Koreans said “yes,” while 99.1 percent of North Koreans were affirmative. The percentage of “very much so” in the affirmative category was 95.5 percent among North Koreans but a mere 28.7 percent among South Koreans. In South Korea, 21.3 percent were negative about the need for reunification and 25.0 percent were uncommitted. Among the Northerners less than 1 percent opposed reunification and none evaded definite answer. Reunification is a natural objective and there is a strong social desire for it in the North.
The above differences have been consistent during the past several years. The affirmative attitude toward reunification accounted for 51.6 percent in South Korea in 2008, 55.8 percent in 2009, and 53.7 percent in 2011. Among the North Koreans it was 95.2 percent in 2008, 97 percent in 2009, and 99.1 percent in 2011. In South Korea up until the 1990s, a much higher percentage of people (up to 91.6 percent) wanted reunification to relieve the pain of divided families (11 percent) and to make Korea whole again (59.0 percent). But from 2000, the desire for reunification declined in the South. Among South Koreans, those who wanted reunification had practical reasons such as prevention of another war (27.3 percent) and to be on a par with advanced nations (17 percent). Reunification is something that the North Koreans regard as absolutely necessary, supposedly from strong nationalistic sentiment plus a sense of inevitability.
2. Expected Time of Reunification
There was a wide difference of opinion about the timing of reunification. Most South Koreans envisioned 20-30 years. In the 2011 survey, 2.5 percent of South Koreans gave 5 years for reunification and 16.3 percent up to 10 years. Those who see it happening within 20 years accounted for 26.1 percent while 14.0 percent foresaw reunification within 30 years. Some 19.8 percent gave it more than 30 years and as many as 21.3 percent believed that reunification is impossible. In short, more than half of South Koreans believe that reunification is impossible within the next 20 years.
Throughout the Lee Myung-bak presidency, a larger number of South Koreans have expected a longer road to reunification or felt it is impossible. Those who have the latter opinion rose from 13.3 percent in 2007 to 22.3 percent in 2008, Lee`s first year in office. The “impossible” camp swelled to 29.8 percent in 2009 and then receded to 20.6 percent in 2010 and 21.3 percent in 2011. The mood appeared to be aligned with the fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist by North Korean guards at Mt. Kumgang (Geumgang) resort in late 2008 and the Northern authorities` detention of South Korean staff at the joint Kaesong (Gaeseong) Industrial Complex. However, the sinking of the South Korean patrol craft Cheonan in an unprovoked torpedo attack by North Koreans and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the West Sea, both in 2010, did not particularly increase pessimism in the South about the prospects of reunification.
In contrast, North Koreans gave relatively shorter time for reunification. The 2011 survey found 18.9 percent believing in reunification within 5 years and 29.7 percent within 10 years. On the other hand, only 14.4 percent believed reunification would come within 20 years, 2.7 percent within 30 years and 7.2 percent after 30 years or more. Twenty-seven percent of North Koreans believed unification was impossible, compared to 21.3 percent in the South.
Overall, North Koreans showed a tendency of extending their prospect for unification in recent years, even with a higher percentage for impossibility than the Southerners, probably influenced by the prolonged tense relations between the two Koreas. It is apparent that conflicts between the North and South increase negative views on unification.
3. Expectations on the Benefits of Reunification
People of the two Koreas showed sharp difference in their expectations on the benefits of unification as in their desire for it. In South Korea, 50.7 percent had positive expectations while 49.3 percent had negative views. On a personal level, only 27.8 percent believed that unification would be beneficial while the rest saw no benefit to them.
North Koreans had strong expectations on the benefits of unification. Questioned about benefits from unification, 91.1 percent responded positively and 8.9 percent negatively. About individual benefits, 95.6 percent were positive and the rest negative. While South Koreans believed that unification would be more beneficial to the overall situation than individuals, North Koreans saw big gains both on the individual and collective levels.
Generally, North Koreans expect that unification will bring bigger economic aid from the South to enrich both individuals and the society. For the Northerners, unification is the great common task which will bring about national revival and individual prosperity. South Koreans, on the other hand, believe that unification will create burdens.
II. Mutual Perception between the North and the South
1. Awareness of the Other Side
Relations between any two sides can range from hostility to apprehension, competition, cooperation and support (engagement). The 2011 survey showed that both South and North Koreans regarded each other mainly as partners for cooperation (47 percent and 50.5 percent, respectively). Those who viewed the other side as a competitor were the lowest group (2.3 percent in the South and 1.9 percent in the North). The levels of support, apprehension and hostility were 16.7 percent, 17.2 percent and 16.8 percent, respectively, in the South, and 11.4 percent, 21.0 percent and 15.2 percent, respectively, in the North.
2. Possibility of Armed Provocation
In 2011, 78.3 percent of South Koreans believed North Korean military provocation against the South was possible. Over the past years, the rate of concerns about the North`s military action changed from 59.7 percent in 2007 to 52.2 percent in 2008, 63.6 percent in 2009 and 67.3 percent in 2010. The figure jumped in 2009 when North Korea conducted its second nuclear test.
North Koreans similarly were concerned deeply about military attack from the South. North Korean defectors were asked if they thought an attack from the South was possible when they lived in the North. In the 2008 survey, 31.4 percent said they had thought the possibility was high and in 2009, 39.1 percent felt likewise. Concerns about military provocation from the South rose sharply to 61.1 percent in 2011. North Korea conducted its second nuclear test on May 25, 2009, and staged the “150-day combat” and “100-day combat” aimed at residents` thought control during the year. These events could have aroused security concerns of the North Koreans. In addition, the North`s propaganda after the sinking of the Cheonan patrol craft and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 may have fed the apprehension.
3. Nuclear Threat
As for North Korean nuclear arsenal, 35.3 percent of South Koreans feel “seriously threatened” and 45.4 percent “considerably threatened.” The aggregate level of apprehension was 68.2 percent in 2007, 61.3 percent in 2008, 74.3 percent in 2009, 73.8 percent in 2010, and 80.7 percent in 2011. The North`s nuclear test in 2009 accounted for the 13 percentage point increase that year and likewise, the shelling on Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 added 7 percentage points. The defectors from the North also said while in the North they believed that their nuclear arms must pose a threat to South Koreans; the percentage of people with such belief was 80.7 percent in 2008, 82.8 percent in 2009 and 89.3 percent in 2011. Thus, the figures indicate that North Koreans believe their nuclear arms are a bigger threat than South Koreans perceive. In other words, most North Koreans believe that their nuclear arsenal effectively protect them from South Korea and other powers.
As observed above, perceptions of North and South Koreans have been quite similar and have changed in similar patterns. Despite continuing conflicts, they regard each other as possible partners of cooperation and very few on either side consider they are competing against each other. 
III. Awareness of Cultural Difference
1. Cultural Gap and Mutual Sense of Difference
An overwhelming majority of South Koreans believe that there are great gaps between the two Koreas in election systems (93.9 percent), standard of living (96.6 percent), legal systems (88.3 percent), current language (90.7 percent), way of life (88.3 percent) and sense of values (93.6 percent). South Koreans` sense of identity with North Koreans dropped sharply in 2009 on various aspects and then rose slightly the next two years.
North Koreans are aware of wide differences in elections (96.2 percent), living standards (97.3 percent), language (94.4 percent), lifestyle (95.3 percent), historical perception (93.4 percent) and sense of values (93.2 percent). No remarkable changes were detected in time-series observation. Both North and South Koreans are acutely aware of the cultural differences between them, which poses a serious problem in their readiness for reunification and internal social integration.
Increased material exchanges and visits between the two sides do not guarantee mitigation of political, economic and cultural differences. In fact, more exchanges could possibly cause more troubles.

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