Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Media Appearance: "South Korea's President May be Just the Man to Solve the North Korea Crisis" on the Atlantic

Here is my latest contribution, based on the interesting phenomenon in South Korea that I noticed in the aftermath of North Korea's ICBM-testing:
In a survey conducted this past February, at the tail end of Park’s scandal-tarnished administration, 80 percent of the South Korean public said it preferred a dialogue-based North Korea policy, with 76 percent approving the idea of an inter-Korean summit meeting. A strong majority—75.9 percent—was also critical of Park's decision to close the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a North-South joint industrial park located in North Korea. Yet today, there seems to be no real objection from the South Korean public to Moon's muscular response to the North. He continues to enjoy sky-high approval ratings—85.1 percent, according to the latest survey by Korea Society Opinion Institute. In the same survey, 78.1 percent responded that they agreed with Moon’s North Korea policy.  
It is unlikely that the South Korean public suddenly reconsidered its preference for a dialogue-based North Korean policy in the last five months. What’s more likely is that a mirror image of the “Nixon goes to China” phenomenon is in play. A commonly held theory suggests that only a staunch conservative like Richard Nixon could have visited Beijing to normalize the Sino-U.S. relationship without suffering any domestic political repercussions. Like Nixon’s conservative credentials, Moon’s liberal bona fides are impeccable. . . . Considering this track record, the South Korean public trusts him to raise the heat on North Korea while not escalating the tension recklessly to a point where a full-scale war might break out.

The "Nixon-to-China"-in-reverse dynamics is one of the most interesting developments I have seen in South Korean politics. The conventional wisdom has been that South Korea's liberals favor dialogue with North Korea while conservatives are more hawkish. That fundamental preference, I believe, has not changed. But I do think even liberal South Koreans are more practical than their stated preference, and tolerate the show of force against North Korea when necessary--as long as it is done by the president they trust.

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