If North Korea and Japan went to war, more South Koreans would back their immediate neighbor, a new poll by a state-sponsored think tank in Seoul showed.
The survey, conducted by research fellow Lee Sang Sin, was presented Wednesday as part of the Korea Institute for National Unification's 11th annual Peace Forum. Lee set out to determine the views of South Koreans at a critical juncture in Northeast Asia's power dynamics, and found they would more readily support longtime rival North Korea than fellow U.S. ally Japan should a conflict break out between the two.
"Under a rather extreme hypothetical situation in which war may break out between North Korea and Japan, 45.5 percent would choose to help North Korea, and 15.1 percent Japan," the survey, which was obtained by Newsweek, showed. "39.4 percent respond that they have no idea."
Lee also found that responses did not vary much by political party, with the right-wing Liberty Korea Party only slightly more decided on assisting either Japan or North Korea. Lee told Newsweek that the results were "not so surprising" for those following the trend in inter-Korean relations.
While the past seven decades have been largely marked by hostility between the two Koreas, the two were jointly occupied by Japan for much of the first half of the 20th century. It was only after the Allied victory in World War II and the dual advance of Cold War adversaries the U.S. and the Soviet Union that the Korean Peninsula was divided along opposing ideological lines.
The bloody, three-year war that followed has technically never ended because only an armistice brought a cessation of hostilities. In the 21st century, a number of attempts have been made to bridge the seemingly impossible gap between Seoul and Pyongyang, led now by third-generation supreme leader Kim Jong Un, who has overseen a historic era in inter-Korean diplomacy.
The young ruler has held a record three summits alongside South Korean President Moon Jae-in, an eager proponent of improving neighborly ties. Kim also became the first North Korean head to meet with a sitting U.S. leader, sitting down with President Donald Trump three times, the last of which also included Moon at a landmark border session.
Though still reviled by critics due to persistent allegations of human rights abuses and authoritarianism, Kim has established himself as a key regional player, meeting also with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has especially sought, however, to channel support from across the border, where vast political differences only cut so deep in the face of a shared culture and history—particularly when it came to the old foe Japan.
"For South Koreans, North Korea is like a troublemaker in the family, a black sheep," Lee told Newsweek. "We hate and despise North Korea, but at the same time, we don't want to see North Korea beaten down by other countries."
"Similarly, whenever South Korea has a territorial dispute about Dokdo with Japan, North Korea has sided with South Korea," he added.
Dokdo is the Korean name for what the Japanese call Takeshima, a set of islets controlled by South Korea and known in English as Liancourt Rocks. Even the sea around them is disputed, with the two Koreas using the term the East Sea and Japan saying the Sea of Japan.
The contested landmass came at the forefront of an ongoing row between Seoul and Tokyo regarding the latter's treatment of Koreans during World War II. South Korea has argued for compensation from Japanese companies due to their use of forced labor from Asian colonies during this period, while Japan considers the matter regarding what it deems "requisitioned" labor settled by their 1965 Basic Relations Treaty that also dealt with the issue of so-called "comfort women."
As this feud worsened, a joint Russian-Chinese patrol neared the Liancourt Rocks, with a Russian spy plane accused of crossing the boundary, and both South Korean and Japan scrambling their jets in response. Both Tokyo and Seoul claimed the exclusive right to respond and, as their ties further deteriorated, Japan imposed new trade restrictions on South Korea, which then quit an intelligence-sharing pact.
"This is one of the worst phases in the history of our relationship since the normalization of relations," one Japanese Foreign Ministry official recently told Newsweek as Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo's administration carefully monitored both U.S. and South Korea's outreach to North Korea.
A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson cited last month by the Korean Central News Agency also warned that Pyongyang and Tokyo's relations had reached "the worst phase." Abe and Kim have yet to hold a direct meeting.
North Korea has meanwhile embarked on new months-long series of missile tests in response to joint U.S.-South Korean exercises and stalled denuclearization-for-peace talks, which continue despite setbacks. Though the launches have been met with tepid reactions by the two nations in comparison to harsh condemnations from Japan, toward which many of these weapons have been fired.
Pyongyang has continued to urge Seoul to distance itself from Tokyo, as well as Washington, in order to foster a Korea-first agenda according to the Uriminzokkiri—roughly "by our nation itself"—stance on reunification. While Moon and Abe recently met in a bid to reverse their downward spiral in relations, Kim's government has sought to keep driving them apart by pinning its newfound military reforms to its imperial past.
"Japan preoccupied with militarism is the real enemy of humanity and a dangerous enemy state which thrusts its aggressive claws into space to be used for progress and prosperity of mankind," the Korean Central News Agency wrote in a commentary published Tuesday.
"The international society will never pardon the criminal acts of the Japanese reactionaries making desperate efforts to inflict a serious disaster upon humanity," it added.
For the survey, called "The Situation in Northeast Asia and South Koreans' Perception", Lee interviewed 1,000 participants in person in three phases—in 2018 from April 5 and April 25, in 2019 from April 5 to April 25, and September 17 to October 8. The margin of error is +/- 3.1 percent at a 95 percent confidence level.