It's Tempting to Say....
...that Aristotle was right when he observed that "youth is wasted on the young." The results of a recent South Korean opinion poll tend to support that assertion. A survey of 1,000 young South Koreans, between the ages of 17 and 23, found that nearly half believe that Seoul should back its arch-enemy North Korea, in the event of hostilities between Pyongyang and the United States. At the same time, just over 40% said that South Korea should remain neutral in a war between North Korea and the U.S., while only 11% said that the Seoul government should support its long-time ally. The survey was conducted by two major South Korean newspapers.
Critics of the Bush Administration will probably use the poll results as evidence of growing anti-Americanism around the globe. But such assessments are not necessarily accurate, particularly when it comes to South Korea. Having spent portions of my military career in that nation, I can attest that such sentiments are largely unique to that demographic group--and their typical, passing interest in radicalism--and not indicative of the society as a whole.
In South Korea, student protests and flirtations with radical politics are a common rite of passage, something to pass the time at the university before graduation. During my tenure in the ROK, you could almost mark your calendar by the protest season; they typically peaked between semesters at the major universities in Seoul. When classes were in session, the demonstrations dropped off dramatically. Apparently, few students wanted to jeopardize their future careers by spending too much time on the ramparts, battling the riot police. But during class breaks, anti-government and anti-U.S. protests remain a popular diversion.
We don't have the "internals" of the South Korean poll, but they would prove informative. I'm guessing that university students are probably over-represented in the sample, hence their "strong" support for Pyongyang. But even that supposed affinity has its limits. If young South Koreans identify that strongly with the communist north, it would be reflected in other sectors of society, notably the military. South Korea's large (and increasingly capable) military is still a conscript-based force; most young men serve a two-year commitment, beginning in their late teens. Yet, despite this apparent fondness for the north by draft-age males, the ROK military has few problems with draft dodgers and desertion. South Korea's harsh penalties against those acts provide one explanation, but it is also clear that most South Korean males don't have a problem with defending their country against its greatest threat--the DPRK.
I gained some sense of this seeming contradiction during my tenure in Korea. As a part of my duties, I attended a number of meetings and conferences at a combined U.S.-ROK operations center, located at Osan AB, about 40 miles south of Seoul. During several gatherings, I struck up a conversation with my counterparts from the South Korean Air Force (ROKAF). A number of these officers freely admitted to participating in student protests during their college days--it was "the thing to do" as one explained. But when they received their degree (and their officer's commission through the ROKAF equivalent of ROTC), they quickly abandoned their radical politics. Many of these young officers hoped to make the ROKAF a career, and understood that there was no place--nor tolerance--for radicals within the officer corps. The same axiom held true for students seeking employment in the civilian sector, particularly in the giant chaebol or congolmerates that dominate the South Korean economy.
In fact, the South Korean student movement in unique, particularly in contrast with U.S. campus radicals of the 1960s. Unlike the American movement, which moved our university system (and the Democratic Party) to the far left of the political spectrum, the South Korean protests have not produced similar changes in that society. True, there is a hard core of campus radicals (some funded and supported by the DPRK), but on the whole, South Korean universities and the larger society remain models of orthodoxy. That's why the poll is more indicative of common political fads among the young, and not a harbinger of changing opinions among the South Korean populace.