The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

South Korea’s Weakening Consensus on Unification

Support for unification has been weakening for a while. Will changing attitudes be reflected in the next presidential administration?

South Korea’s Weakening Consensus on Unification
Credit: Flickr/ Christopher John SSF

It has been conventional wisdom among South Korean leaders – conservative and progressive – that the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula is the only correct endgame with North Korea. From Roh Tae-woo’s introduction of a new unification formula to the Moon Jae-in government seeking dialogue and economic interactions, unification has been a central focal point of North Korean policies.

However, over the last couple of years, the elite-held consensus on the appropriateness of unification has been weakening. The following looks at this weakening and how it may impact the 2022 South Korean presidential election and future inter-Korean relations.

A Shift Away From Unification?

Over the past few years, there is much evidence that the consensus regarding unification has been weakening due to a variety of contextual and ideational shifts. One reason for this is generational shifts and changes to political ideology.

Traditionally, South Korean elites have largely been ambivalent toward North Korean belligerence. This has been most obvious among progressive elites, who have shown a penchant for engaging with North Korea despite a lack of reciprocation. Conservatives, who are commonly referred to as hawkish, have also sought to engage with North Korea. Lee Myung-bak continued to keep the Kaesong Industrial Complex open and sought dialogue after the attack on the ROKS Cheonan, and during the start of Park Geun-hye’s presidency, Seoul promoted dialogue as the way forward despite missile launches and attacks in and around the DMZ. Elites always sought to engage based on the dubious premise of engagement helping build peace and lead to eventual unification.

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However, changes in how South Koreans view North Korea have been present in surveys since the early 2010s. Multiple studies have noted a shift among the youth regarding the appropriateness and likelihood of unification. Studies have shown a new national identity, one based on civic nationalism rather than ethnic nationalism, influences a new narrative toward North Korea among younger Koreans. The consequence of this is the youth do not necessarily seek unification as it would not be beneficial to them or South Korea.

In contemporary South Korea, few forces remain married to the absolutist vision of unification. The extreme right remains committed to their idea of unification as evidenced by their incessant protesting in the center of Seoul and the platforms of a few political parties, such as the Our Republican Party (Woori Gonghwa dang, ORP) and the Pro-Park New Party (Chinpark Shin dang, Pro-Park). The ORP’s most important political platform is rejecting communism and the dictatorship in North Korea that has now been passed down to the third generation.

However, such approaches are not a priority for the mainstream right, for a number of reasons. For one, the conservatives are no longer old; the current People Power Party (PPP) leader, Lee Jun-seok, is 36 years old, and appears largely ambivalent to unification. Lee argued in a national television debate that the most realistic path to unification is for the South Korean government to assume control over North Korea and noted he supported peaceful unification by absorption. Similarly, Lee called for the abolishment of the Ministry of Unification in July 2021. Extravagant planning for unification has essentially disappeared from policy platforms on the right as well.

On the Korean left, there remains, at least in the Blue House, adherence to the consensus, with government officials announcing that inter-Korean relations are proceeding well at numerous press conferences. Yet, despite such overtures, the left has also begun to pursue new military technologies including cruise missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, new helicopters and jet fighters. Such developments represent a possible shift from absorption to a nwae-jeon (literally “mind combat” or “strategic battle”) type of deterrence where complex bargaining would result at the political level – a kind of military sovereignty. This would see the disunity of the Korean Peninsula endure.

A shift on the left can also be seen in the North Korean policies presented by Lee Jae-myung, a frontrunner for the Democratic Party in the 2022 presidential election. Lee suggested he would support conditional sanctions relief based on the idea that sanctions would be immediately placed on Pyongyang if they broke promises to denuclearize. He also promised to set up a peace economy on the Korean Peninsula and persuade the U.N. to provide sanctions suspension for the Kaesong Industrial Complex. He also noted that common ethnic roots can no longer be the basis for a consensus on unification.

Lee appears to be hedging his bets with this policy. A decade ago, the Korean left supported the idea that unconditional engagement was required to help prompt dialogue and eventual unification. Yet, Lee’s proposal reads the same as Lee Myung-bak or Park Geun-hye era approaches. Lee Myung-bak’s entire inter-Korean policy was based on principles and conditionality. and Park’s verbose “daebak” comments were also based on reciprocation and conditionality. However, the remainder of his policy positions resembles much of Moon’s failed policy positions.

Changes on the Horizon?

In their book “The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash,” Scott Snyder and Brad Glosserman note, “South Korean attitudes toward North Korea have fluctuated dramatically in concert with government optimism or pessimism about prospects for the relationship. In other words, it appears that government policy has led South Korean public opinion of the North, depending on whether the government pursued a policy characterized by either cooperation or confrontation with Pyongyang.” Consequently, if leaders begin to emphasize a new discourse on North Korean policy the general population will likely follow. A new approach could have real and long-term implications. As the above has shown, there is a strong possibility that the consensus on unification has weakened and has been weakening for a while. However, whether these forces will enter the Blue House is yet to be seen.

If Lee Jae-myung wins the 2022 election he may contempt to muddle through with a weakened version of Moon’s policies. Nonetheless, Lee does differ on some key aspects of North Korean policy. Lee noted that an ethnic basis for North Korean policy is no longer appropriate, presenting a big change from Moon and previous 386 Generation leaders. However, just how a new identity will form and influence North Korean policy is not obvious at this time.

On the other hand, if conservative forces enter the Blue House, some changes could be on the horizon. The Korean right appears more than happy to present a more South Korean-centric stance when crafting North Korean policy. If the new conservatives begin to influence politics in the Blue House or in the National Assembly, then I expect the desire for unification will only be derived from Seoul-centric ideals such as preventing Chinese influence and growing South Korea as a geopolitical force. Unification may cease to exist as an effective calling card for South Korean elites in the future.