A surprising new poll from the Korea Research Center found 78 percent of South Koreans claiming they trust North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un to reach a denuclearization agreement with South Korea and the United States.
Bloomberg Politics credited Kim’s conduct during his summit last week with South Korean President Moon Jae-in with inspiring a sea change in local opinion, as measured by a Gallup Korea poll in March that found only 10 percent approval for Kim:
The summit was filled with unprecedented scenes: Kim’s step over the ankle-high concrete slab dividing the Korean Peninsula – and then his walk back across the border hand-in-hand with Moon; a 30-minute private chat in the woods in front of television cameras; the first ever live remarks to reporters by a North Korean leader; Kim’s sense of humor and his deferential manner toward Moon, who is more than 30 years his senior.
And that’s just the optics. More significantly, the two leaders signed a declaration to finally end a seven-decade war this year, and pursue the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. Kim also called for frequent meetings between the leaders – a major shift given only three summits have taken place since the war.
More than 35 percent of respondents to the poll conducted earlier this week on behalf of national broadcaster MBC said the biggest accomplishment was the pledge to rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons. Nearly 30 percent said Moon’s hop over the border at Kim’s impromptu suggestion was the most impressive moment of the summit.
Support for Kim is now nearly as high as it is for Moon, who scored an 86 percent rating. The South Korean president has been enjoying the highest popularity among all South Korean presidents in history since his inauguration a year ago.
Western observers might be reading too much into this poll, especially when they trumpet it as evidence that South Koreans “like” or “approve” of Kim Jong-un. Opinion poll analysis is controversial even when American media reports on polls of American citizens conducted by American firms. Divining the state of South Korean thinking on North Korea’s tyrant from a single poll is an even more perilous exercise.
For starters, the Gallup Korea poll from March mentioned by Bloomberg Politics found South Koreans giving an even lower approval rating to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who chugged in with only 5 percent approval to Kim Jong-un’s 10 percent. Korean feelings about Japan are a difficult subject, and so are Abe’s current political fortunes, but very few South Koreans would state with complete sobriety that they think Kim Jong-un is a better head of state than Shinzo Abe, or that they would prefer to live under Kim’s rule.
The Korea Research Center poll was conducted for local broadcaster MBC, which describes the relevant poll question as more about whether Kim was sincere in the statements and gestures he made at his meeting with Moon, not whether they liked or approved of Kim Jong-un overall. MBC’s description of the poll, translated from Korean, suggests the headline-grabbing result would be better interpreted as “17.1 percent said he was very sincere, 60.5 percent somewhat sincere, 77.5 percent overall.”
Furthermore, the MBC report implies that what respondents were actually endorsing is the sense of genuine progress made toward improved relations with North Korea and denuclearization. Another finding was that 29.9 percent of respondents believed Kim Jong-un’s upcoming summit with U.S. President Donald Trump would be very successful, while 56.4 percent expected it to be somewhat successful.
The Washington Post cites other previous polls that showed very few South Koreans seriously believed Pyongyang might give up its nuclear program or seek a substantial improvement in relations with Seoul.
The shift in South Korean opinion does not seem like affection for Kim Jong-un, or really even trust; instead, South Koreans think Kim seriously wants to make a deal, and they are surprised by how polite and conciliatory the formerly belligerent dictator has been since the beginning of this year. It is a major change in South Korean thinking across age demographics and party lines, but it seems disingenuous to suggest that Kim Jong-un’s approval rating south of the DMZ shot from 10 percent up to almost 80 percent overnight because of the Panmunjom summit.
One other noteworthy, if unsurprising, result of the Korea Research Center poll is that the majority of respondents wanted President Trump’s meeting with Kim to be held in Panmunjom as well. The runner-up was Singapore with 13 percent approval.