South Koreans Slowly Wake up to North Korean Threat

Jane Kim, Sept. 11, 2017, 9:27 a.m.


South Koreans are getting increasingly rattled by the accelerating nuclear and missile threat from North Korea after years of apathy.

Now not just conservative older South Koreans but a growing number of younger people who have tended to be more pro-North Korean support a hardline approach to the North.

"Months of provocations by North Korea and steady news reports about a looming crisis compounded by the unpredictable styles of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump appear to be affecting public sentiment," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongkuk University.

Most South Koreans seemed unfazed by the war of words between Trump and Kim until early last month. The Los Angeles Times described South Koreans as "surprising blasé." But after North Korea's latest nuclear test, more and more people say they sense palpable tension.

Kim Hye-ran (34), an elementary school teacher in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, said, "For the first time in my life, I searched the Internet for the nearest bomb shelter to my house. I am nervous, because North Korea seems to have perfected a nuclear bomb."

And Kim Young-sung (48), who runs a restaurant in Suwon outside Seoul said, "I fear the Korean Peninsula could be reduced to rubble after watching North Korea continue its nuclear tests." 

Office worker Park Ga-hee (25) favors a hardline. "Of course we have to halt all aid to North Korea and we also need to completely isolate it," she said.

Many favor South Korea building its own nuclear arms. Accountant Kim Sang-il (32) said, "We deployed the THAAD [missile defense battery], but the best way to defend our country from North Korea's nuclear threat is our own nuclear weapon."

Jung Dong-kuk (43), who runs his own business in Daegu, agrees. "North Korea is acting so brazenly because it has nuclear weapons. We also need nuclear weapons to protect ourselves," he said.

Opinion polls also reflect the shift. A Gallup poll on Sunday showed a growing number voicing fears of the North Korean nuclear threat and supporting hardline policies, regardless of age and ideological preferences.

Asked if North Korea's latest nuclear test threatened peace on the Korean Peninsula, 77 percent in their 20s, 70 percent in their 30s, 74 percent in their 40s, 74 percent in their 50s and 82 percent in their 60s or above agreed.

In a similar survey in January last year, just after North Korea's previous nuclear test, showed only 62 percent in their 20s and 53 percent in their 30s saying it threatened peace.

Now 65 percent support tough sanctions including stopping all aid, the highest level since 2013. Among conservative respondents, 82 percent back halting all aid to North Korea, but the proportion is also high among moderates with 65 percent and even 52 percent of progressives.

Although only 37 percent overall fear an imminent outbreak of war, the rate is 42 percent among those in their 20s, who have tended to be the most friendly to North Korea.

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