Social scientists use “stylized facts” as shorthand when talking about an issue. A stylized fact is a finding that is observed so frequently it is simply accepted as given. In order to have any kind of breadth of knowledge, analysts will internalize stylized facts to sketch out the state of the world. And, usually (though not always) something doesn’t become a stylized fact unless it’s pretty obviously true.
I bring this up because one of the stylized facts that many foreign policy-watchers in the United States have had in their head for years is the notion that there is a generational shift in attitudes in South Korea towards the United States. About a decade ago, the common narrative was that while older South Koreans valued the US-ROK alliance, younger Koreans felt very differently:
According to the progressives, mostly supported by the younger generation, the United States was involved in Korea and the region because of its own self-interest, imperial and otherwise. Instead of being seen as a staunch ally that came to South Korea’s rescue in times of its greatest need, the United States is seen as a superpower bully that sustained authoritarian rulers and their cronies in South Korea in an effort to impose its will on the country and the region. Not surprisingly such views have come to have a profoundly corrosive effect on South Korean public’s perception of the United States and the alliance. Such a view, once relegated to the so-called radical leftist fringes of South Korea’s political spectrum, came into the political mainstream with the election of President Kim Dae-jung (1998–2003) and then became the majority under the Roh Moo-hyun administration (2004–present). The Sunshine Policy, a policy of engagement with North Korea started by the Kim Dae-jung administration and inherited by Roh, gave full expression to this view.
So this has been part of the foreign policy conventional wisdom for quite a while.
This week I’ve been in South Korea to meet with South Korean officials and scholars about the region, and I learned a lot from all of them. But the thing that truly blew my mind was a presentation by the Asan Institute’s Kim Jiyoon demonstrating their latest public opinion survey findings about South Korean attitudes towards the United States. This fact kind of jumped out:
Concerns of a U.S. decline appeared to have little impact on South Koreans’ view of U.S. leadership. This was particularly the case for young South Koreans, who assessed U.S. leadership much more positively than China’s. In particular, 79.9% and 72.8% of those in their 20s and 30s, respectively, assessed the U.S. as a better global leader than China. Moreover, 74.8% chose the U.S. over China as South Korea’s future partner. Regarding the importance of the two countries languages, 75.5% of South Koreans in their 20s chose English over Chinese (19.9%).
Indeed, when the report broke down approval rates of U.S. and China’s international leadership by age cohort, the results are striking. All age cohorts approved of U.S. leadership more than Chinese leadership, but the gap was much stronger for the under-40 set than for older Koreans. They concluded: “While South Koreans in general were approving of US leadership, younger respondents were particularly enthusiastic.”
So was the stylized fact about young South Koreans wrong? Not exactly. What’s happened is that those young South Koreans have now become middle-aged South Koreans. They’ve mellowed a bit in their anti-American attitudes, but that age cohort remains the most suspicious of the United States — because of its support for pre-1988 authoritarian rulers in the country, and for the Bush administration’s hostility to the Sunshine policies of the previous decade.
Currently, young South Koreans, however, have a different view. They appear to be more suspicious about China’s rise and are way more suspicious of North Korea’s intentions. For both of these reasons, it’s understandable that they value the alliance with the United States.
So, consider this an alert to all members of the U.S. foreign policy community: please update your stylized fact about how Koreans feel about the United States. It turns out that, as of right now, younger Koreans are also the most pro-American.