Japanese and South Korean views differ on denuclearization of North Korea and future of the Korean Peninsula

June 22, 2018

The Genron NPO and South Korea's East Asia Institute (EAI) think tank conducted a joint public opinion survey in Japan and South Korea between May and June. The survey was carried out around the same time as the flurry of backroom negotiations in preparation for the historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump on June 12, following the meeting of the North and South Korean leaders April 27.

While it is hard to say that the path toward denuclearizing North Korea has become clear, there is no doubt that the first step to resolving the issue has been taken. The Korean Peninsula faces a historic turning point that could lead to the official end of the Korean War and a new future for the two Koreas.

This year's survey differs from previous surveys in that it was conducted when the world was beginning to seriously consider building new relationships for a better future, while Japanese and South Koreans continue to harbor complex sentiments toward each other over their differing perceptions of history. What needs to be confirmed here is whether there are any indications that the recent events have prompted the citizens of both countries to improve their tense relationship and transform it into a more future-oriented one.

The stark difference between Japanese and South Korean views regarding North Korea's denuclearization

One prominent characteristic of the results of this survey is the difference in how Japanese and South Koreans feel about the denuclearization of North Korea and the future of the Korean Peninsula.

While the sentiment of South Koreans has changed drastically against the historical challenge that has started on the Korean Peninsula, Japanese remain generally pessimistic about the issue. For example, only 25.5% of Japanese respondents feel "denuclearization will happen as per the agreement" or "efforts will begin to be made toward denuclearization, but the final resolution will take time," while 59.3% of South Koreans share that sentiment. (Figure 1)

In contrast, only 36.6% of South Koreans say the agreement between North Korea and the United States alone is not enough to determine whether denuclearization will occur, or that ultimately the agreement will not be honored, while 56.9% of Japanese maintain this pessimistic view.

Similarly, while 65.1% of Japanese feel a resolution of North Korea's nuclear issue will be "difficult"-- a result mostly unchanged from the previous year's survey -- only 23.2% of South Koreans feel the same, a drastic drop from last year's 71.3%.

Furthermore, when asked whether a resolution could occur sometime between the time span of "within this year" to "within 10 years," 60.6% of South Korean people say, "it will be resolved," while only 10.2% of Japanese people believe so.

That the Japanese views are generally more pessimistic is apparent from a joint survey The Genron NPO conducted around the same time with the United States. The survey, carried out with the cooperation of the University of Maryland, asks the same question, and nearly half (48.4%) of Americans responded that North Korea's nuclear issue will be resolved sometime between "this year" and "10 years," while only 25.8% said "resolution would be difficult."

This U.S.-Japan survey also asks whether Kim Jong Un's commitment to peace on the Korean Peninsula could be trusted. Less than 10% of the respondents in both countries say Kim's intentions can be trusted, while over 60% say they can't. Despite this response, the reason Americans are more positive than Japanese about a resolution to the nuclear crisis may be because as one of the negotiating parties, the U.S. government's explanation and domestic media coverage have helped American people understand the significance of this summit.

Such a gap in perception between Japan and South Korea is also seen in the views on the future of the Korean Peninsula. In last year's survey, half of the Korean respondents said, "the instability will remain the same" or that the "conflict between North and South Korea will intensify" on the Korean Peninsula 10 years from now. But this year, the views of Korean people have changed drastically, with over 60% saying, "the relations between North and South will improve."(figure 2)

In other words, many South Koreans support the way South Korean President Moon Jae-in's administration is handling the North Korean issue and are more hopeful about the future of the Korean Peninsula. That is why in regards to the ideal future of the peninsula, over 70% of South Koreans desire a "complete unification as a single nation" or "two separate states under a sovereign federal government," or to "exist as separate nation-states but create a North-South union similar to the EU." Japanese people do not have such high hopes about the future of the Koren Peninsula.



Japanese views on the Korean Peninsula problem dependent on media coverage

Japanese people maintain such pessimistic views not only because Japan is not directly involved in the negotiations, but also because of a strong distrust of North Korea in regards to humanitarian issues like the abductees (Japanese citizens abducted from Japan by agents of the North Korean government). Japanese media often mention the North Korean issue in relation to the issue of Japanese abductees.

But what has more influence on Japanese sentiment is their serious mistrust of South Korea, which in turn hinders them from comprehending the actions of the South Korean leader. Furthermore, Japanese people must base their decisions about recent negotiations and summits on Japanese media coverage alone.

This phenomenon can be explained by a combination of questions posed in the survey.

For example, in Japan, the younger generation in their teens and 20s who have a relatively better impression of South Korea compared to older generations express a more positive view about the prospects of a resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. Also, people who express a more tolerant view of South Korea have better expectations for the recent turn of events. People who rely on newspapers as a source of information for the problems between Japan and South Korea have better expectations than those who rely on television as an information source. But unfortunately, only a small fraction of people in Japan and South Korea relies on newspapers as an information source.

In other words, Japanese people do not have enough information to make a sound decision about the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Is there any change in the bilateral relationship or mutual understanding?

What we must think about now is what the people of both countries think about the bilateral relationship and whether there is any improvement in how the people perceive each other.

This section will look into the change in the past year about the views of Japanese and South Korean people on mutual understanding and bilateral relations, as well as the importance of the bilateral relationship.

With regard to the impression of each other's countries and evaluation of the state of Japan-South Korea relations, the responses show a slight improvement from the previous year.

The improvement in the South Korean people's impression of Japan in this year's survey is conspicuous, with 50.6% saying they had "a bad impression" of Japan compared to last year's 56.1%, dropping 26 points from the 76.65% recorded when the survey started in 2013. Those who responded "good" also increased to 28.3%, compared to 26.8% from the previous year.


In contrast, the Japanese impression of its neighbor only improved slightly, and only in the response "neither," hence not necessarily indicating a change for the better. There are several reasons for these results. First is the increasing number of South Koreans visiting Japan. In 2017, the number of South Korean tourists visiting Japan increased by 2 million to 7.14 million. This is reflected in the survey as well, with 38.6% of South Koreans responding that they have visited Japan in the past, compared to last year's 35.1%. Among those who have visited Japan, 49.1% say they have a "good impression" of the country, compared to 15.3% of South Korean respondents who have never visited Japan expressing the same sentiment.

In contrast, the number of Japanese visiting South Korea has not changed much in recent years and the impression of South Korea among those who have visited the country has similarly remained unchanged. Another point is that the impression of each other's country varies greatly among different generations. In both countries, those aged below 30 have a better impression of their neighboring country and many in this generation access information sites using their mobile phones.

Why Japanese and South Koreans cannot believe in the future of bilateral relations

In this survey, the number of people who believe the bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea is "bad" has decreased in both countries. In Japan, 40.6% say so, compared to 57.7% who said so the previous year. Meanwhile in South Korea, 54.8% likewise say the bilateral relationship is "bad," compared to the 65.6% who said so in the previous survey. These results are the lowest since the survey started in 2013.

But the fact that less than 10% feel the bilateral relationship is "good" shows that the overall sentiment has yet to improve. In fact, 47.8% of Japanese and 57.2% of South Koreans say, "bilateral relations will remain unchanged in the future," which is a slight increase from the 45.2% of Japanese and 49.7% of South Koreans who responded this way in the previous survey. In other words, citizens of both countries are not confident that bilateral relations may improve in future.

Why is that so?

One reason the citizens of both nations believe the bilateral relationship is improving is the frequent exchanges between the leaders of both countries. Since the birth of the Moon administration May 10, 2017, the leaders of Japan and South Korea have met each other or conducted phone conferences a total of 15 times. Each time they met, the leaders are said to have exchanged views on the North Korean nuclear problem.

Meanwhile, the two countries have agreed to build a future-oriented relationship and to take appropriate measures to address difficult challenges like the comfort women issue. And when the trilateral summit of Japan, China and South Korea was held May 9 this year, the three countries agreed to seek the denuclearization of North Korea.

Despite these moves, the reason Japan-South Korea relations fail to improve is because the citizens of both countries cannot be convinced of the importance of the bilateral relationship itself.

The number of people who believe the relationship is important has decreased in both countries from the previous year, but the figure remains relatively high, with 56.3% of Japanese and 82.4% of South Koreans responding so, compared to the 64.3% and 89.9% who said so in the previous survey. Of course, the significance of the importance will be different when viewed from the perspective of the three countries, including China, or from a more global standpoint. Nevertheless, the citizens of both countries frankly recognize the importance of bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea.

But the problem lies in the reason they believe so. Japanese and South Korean people believe they are important to each other because of a very general acknowledgement of being a "neighbor country" or "the same Asian country." In South Korea, some people acknowledge the economic significance, but less than 20% name "the alliance with the United States" as a reason bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea are important. Similarly, less than 1% cite "common values as a democracy" as a reason.

The survey always asks, "What is necessary to improve the bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea?" The responses in both countries are the same every year.

The issues that need to be addressed are always "the perception of history," "comfort women" and the "territorial dispute over Takeshima/Dokto." This year again, some 70% of South Koreans list the same three issues while about 40% of Japanese say the same.

The reason the people of both countries cite past history as an issue that needs to be addressed is because they do not know if there is any other way to improve the bilateral relationship.

In the survey, the number of South Koreans who said "historical issues will gradually be resolved as bilateral relations improve" increased from the previous year, while the response "it is difficult to resolve historical issues even if bilateral relations improve" was the most popular response among Japanese respondents. While it is an indisputable fact that resolving the historical issue is critical in improving the bilateral relationship, the survey result indicates that alone is insufficient to break this unyielding mentality toward Japan-South Korea relations.

For the bilateral relationship to improve, the people of both nations must think seriously about the importance of each other. Unless we find an answer to why the Japan-South Korea relationship is important for the future of Asia and the Korean Peninsula, this sense of stagnation will not change.

Now is the time for the two countries to prepare for peaceful stability on the Korean Peninsula

The North Korea issue is literally a future-oriented issue that is linked to the future and peace of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia. As the outlook remains uncertain, how the two countries engage and cooperate on this issue dictates the future of the bilateral relationship. But unfortunately, the results of this year's survey did not indicate any such change.

One new question was added to this year's survey.

Asked whether Japan, South Korea and the United States should strengthen military cooperation, 35.8% of Japanese say "agree" (including "somewhat agree"), compared to 60.9% of South Koreans. The top response among Japanese is "neither" with 45.1%, while those who "disagree" (including "somewhat disagree") is 6.6% among South Korean respondents and 18.7% among Japanese. Asked why they believed so, 60.3% of Japanese and 79.4% of South Koreans selected "it is essential to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula" as their answer.

For the peaceful future of the Korean Peninsula, the people of both nations should realize that the two countries must join forces. And now is the time to start such preparations.



Opinion Polls

The Japan-South Korea Joint Opinion Poll on North Korean's Denuclearization and the future of the Korean peninsula

June 18, 2018
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American people are more optimistic than Japanese
about outcomes of the upcoming U.S.-North Korea Summit

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