How South Koreans Feel About North Korean Threats

Despite the efforts of Kim Jong Un to ramp up fear, it appears South Koreans have become increasingly less emotionally affected by Pyongyang’s provocations.
March 10th, 2013

While the international community feels compelled to slap North Korea on the wrists in response to its third missile test, South Koreans appear blasé.

Despite North Korea declaring its latest nuclear test was carried out as part of an action against the “sworn enemy of the Korean people” – and even though the new launch has created speculation the DPRK has improved its nuclear capabilities and may even have a highly enriched uranium programme – South Koreans generally remained indifferent to the recent tests. Even the stock market merely fluttered.

But if most citizens south of the DMZ appear unflappable, the nuclear muscle-flexing combined with December’s rocket launch has nevertheless destroyed hopes of rebuilding mutual trust between the two Koreas for any possibility of reconciliation.

In that sense, Pyongyang’s motivations for the test may have backfired. Kim Jong Un’s February test partly aimed to punish South Koreans voters for voting in conservative Park Geun-hye as the nation’s new president. Pyongyang has increased the severity and diversity of provocations since 2012, in contrast to previous elections when a progressive president was in the Blue House, as the flowing graphs show:

Despite the efforts of Kim Jong Un to ramp up fear, it appears South Koreans have become increasingly less emotionally affected by Pyongyang’s provocations. Most citizens consider the border conflict along the DMZ and Northern Limit Line (NLL) as a more severe threat than the missile or nuclear threats.

This sentiment took shape after the Cheonan sinking and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island. The loss of lives made citizens disillusioned about outgoing President Lee Myung-bak’s hard-line policy towards Pyongyang. South Koreans see the policy as needlessly exacerbating the conflict between Seoul and Pyongyang, and were leaning towards pragmatism with the departure of Lee Myung-bak and his highly unsuccessful inter-Korea legacy.

But the third nuclear test has stymied any flexibility Park Geun-hye might have brought to inter-Korean relations. Any realistic improvement between the two Koreas will now be put on ice, at least in coming years.

The regime that cried wolf

As the DPRK gets more vocal, the less impact its threats have on an apparently hardened population. Verbal threats from Pyongyang towards Seoul more than doubled from 2002 to 2012.

The total number of verbal threats posed from North Korea to Seoul dropped from 66 in 2002 to 49 in 2007, but rose to 126 in 2012. The DPRK is also making more open criticisms against South Korean leaders, particularly conservative leaders like Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, rather than pointing vaguely to the Saenuri Party (formerly named as ‘Grand National Party’).

Pyongyang’s messengers for the threats have also changed in recent times. The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF), the major North Korea party body engaged in South Korean affairs, used to be the most outspoken representative for delivering provocative messages to Seoul. This was during the Sunshine era. But since the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010 and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2011, media outlets such as the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) plus Rodong Sinmun (38%) and Uriminzokkiri (13%) have become airing most of North Korea’s verbal provocations, as the two Koreas shut down all diplomatic links.

Picture by forayinto35m

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About the Author

Steve Chung

Steve Lok-wai CHUNG is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Korean Studies, University of Sydney. He graduated from Lingnan University in 2004, majoring in international relations, and obtained an MPhil in government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2008, with his thesis on “Pushing the Envelope for Transnational Political Advocacy: Unconventional Channels in EU-DPRK Relations”. His research interests include peace and reconciliation of the two Koreas, reform and development of North Korean economy and nuclear diplomacy of North Korea.