Expert: Shifting S. Korea stance may complicate talks

Rising anti-American sentiment in South Korea will have a definite impact on ongoing talks with North Korea, according to an East-West Center specialist. A survey found South Koreans had a more negative impression of their nation’s traditional allies — the United States and Japan — than longtime adversaries China and North Korea.

After a six-month standoff, the U.S. and North Korea opened talks in Beijing yesterday about Pyongyang’s suspected secret nuclear weapons program. But as the China-hosted negotiations unfold, regional expert Choong Nam Kim said public opinion on the southern part of the peninsula deserve careful scrutiny.

The results of the Gallup Korea survey of 1,054 adults taken last December were astonishing and would have been unimaginable only a decade ago, said Kim, who specializes in U.S.-Korea relations.

Kim says these changing attitudes will complicate trilateral talks among the United States, North Korea and China on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

“There is a reduced perception of North Korea as a threat, and South Korea has close relations with China and Russia,” Kim said. The number of South Koreans who believe North Korea will invade plummeted from 69 percent in 1992 to 37 percent early this year, polls show. Moreover, North Korea can no longer rely on China and Russia for military or economic assistance.

Because of these changes, South Korea depends less on U.S. military support and wants a more equal relationship with the United States, which maintains a Cold War mentality and perpetuates an unequal military alliance with Seoul, said Kim, who served as assistant for political affairs under two South Korean presidents before joining the East-West Center.

“Seoul’s position weakens Washington’s negotiating position toward Pyongyang,” Kim said. “North Korea’s programs of weapons of mass destruction do not mean additional threats to South Koreans, who have lived under the constant threat across the DMZ for half a century.

“But the United States is only preoccupied with weapons of mass destruction in the North. It has no broader vision for the U.S.-ROK alliance, the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia. Without a comprehensive security framework in the region and broader participation in the dialogue, bilateral talks may be frustrating and time-consuming. The North may save enough time to develop nuclear weapons.”

In his newly released East-West Center publication, Kim quotes a former South Korean foreign minister who said “anti-Americanism may reach a point where events could become uncontrollable.” Kim’s article examines this dramatic shift in attitudes.

The Gallup Korea survey last December showed more than 53 percent of South Koreans in the poll said they dislike the United States, up from 15 percent in 1994. Over the same period, the percentage of those who said they liked Americans fell from nearly 64 percent to 37 percent.

On the other hand, 55 percent had positive attitudes toward China and 47 percent toward North Korea.

The poll numbers also reveal a striking generational difference. While only 26 percent of the respondents ages 50 and over expressed dislike for the United States, the rate for those in their twenties was over 75 percent. A significant generational divide also exists in attitudes toward North Korea.

From the East-West Wire. For more information, contact Choong Nam Kim can be reached in Honolulu at 808-944-7372 or

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