Weekly Insights and Analysis

In South Korea: Has Nuclear North Korea Slipped Off the Agenda?

January 29, 2007

By Edward Reed

Edward ReedOn January 23, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun delivered a live televised New Year’s address to the nation. In that one-and-a-half hour speech, he discussed in detail the domestic economic challenges facing the country and his government’s policies to address them. He also chided the political opposition and the media for obstructing his search for solutions. Lacking more time, he omitted the part of his prepared text related to national security and policy toward North Korea. This could be considered remarkable given that South Korea now faces a nuclear-armed North, and the Six Party negotiations have reached a critical stage. Political foes and the media reacted immediately using the speech to batter the already unpopular President, even though this omission actually seems to reflect the prevailing attitude of the South Korean people.

It would be erroneous to say that the South Korean people and government are not concerned about the North Korean nuclear problem. However, there is clearly a gap between how foreign observers feel South Korea should be reacting and how they actually see things. In the days following North Korea’s nuclear test last October, the foreign media descended on Seoul from around the world and set up their cameras overlooking City Hall Plaza for live coverage of the “crisis”. But the main story turned out to be that South Koreans were not panicking. The stock market hardly flinched and people went about their lives as usual. President Roh has remarked that this calm at the center of the storm reflects the more mature understanding of the situation on the peninsula generated by the policy of engagement with North Korea followed by the last two Administrations.

However, this surprising level of indifference can also be attributed to other factors. The Korean public appears to have an overriding preoccupation with their daily struggle to meet immediate needs in an increasingly uneasy economic environment, while hoping that the distant noise of a “North Korea problem” doesn’t disrupt their lives. There is also a widespread perception that the nuclear issue is primarily a problem between the United States and North Korea, with the South playing only a supporting role. President Roh reinforced this view when he stated in a January 25 press conference that discussion of the North Korean nuclear issue “pivots around the U.S.-DPRK axle. What the Republic needs to do at this point is to foster an amicable environment for both the United States and North Korea to come to the negotiating table.”

Progress in the next round of Six Party Talks and improved relations between the U.S. and North Korea will be widely welcomed in South Korea. However, in the charged and increasingly polarized politics of the South (as jockeying begins for the Presidential election in December), relaxation of tensions is likely to reignite the debate over balancing aid to the North with attention to domestic economic and structural problems. Progressives will press for a more active program of economic cooperation in order to regain leverage in dealing with the North. Opponents will object to all but the most essential humanitarian aid and instead focus on the domestic issues that the public is most concerned about. This is the agenda that President Roh himself highlighted in his spoken New Year’s address and, short of a major new provocation by the North, this is the agenda that will preoccupy South Koreans for the foreseeable future.

Note: The full texts of President Roh’s January 23 New Year’s address and his January 25 news conference can be found at:

Related locations: Korea


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