World

Gallup World Poll: Implications of Reunification of Two Koreas

by Cheoleon Lee
Senior Research Director, The Gallup Organization

South Koreans favor reunification despite the perceived burden

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- After a half-century of division and confrontation between the two Koreas, the capitalist South has become a fully industrialized country and the world's 11th largest economy, while the isolated communist North is on the verge of economic collapse. Similarity to the situation in Germany prior to its reunification has contributed to debate about whether, how, and when the two Koreas could be reunited.

When South Koreans were asked in a Gallup World Poll conducted this summer if the two Koreas should be united, the majority (67%) said yes. However, South Koreans also believe -- perhaps learning from the German unification -- that reunification would impose a heavy burden on the South. More than half (56%) of South Koreans said there is more for their country to lose than to gain if the two Koreas become united, while 36% said the South has more to gain.

These seemingly inconsistent findings suggest that for many South Koreans the desire for unification is driven less by any expectation of short-term gain than by other factors such as a strong sense of common identity. Regarding the costs, South Korea's current policy of gradually increasing diplomatic engagement and trade with the North is based in part on the idea that it will help mitigate the economic disparities between the two nations and reduce the burden on South Korea if and when unification happens.

South Koreans' Perception of the Superpowers

In the long run, the unification of South Korea's industrial base with North Korea's literate and highly disciplined labor force seems likely to result in an economically stronger nation. A unified Korea may not achieve superpower status in the post-Cold War era, but its alignment with either of the economic giants surrounding it would have a dramatic effect on the political and economic landscape of Northeast Asia.

Which alignments are most likely to occur? The poll asked South Koreans whether they approve or disapprove of the leadership in the major countries surrounding them. Chinese leadership is most likely to meet with approval from Koreans, followed by the leadership of Russia, the United States, and Japan. A similar question asking if the people in each of these countries respect the people of South Korea produced the same pattern of results. South Koreans' comparatively positive sentiment toward China's people and leadership may be due to increasing economic and political exchanges with China.

Whether Korea's potential reunification is a gradual and peaceful process, or a more abrupt one (as it was in Germany) it is most likely to result in the economically dominant South absorbing the failing communist North. The fact that South Koreans are currently more favorable toward China than the United States may be a concern for the U.S. interests in Northeast Asia.. Eventually, U.S. forces in South Korea may no longer be needed to deter a North Korean invasion, but may be faced with a new mission -- promoting stability amid three regional giants: China, Japan, and Korea.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,100 South Korean adults, aged 15 and older, conducted June 19-July 11, 2006. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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