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Silent Majority

Silent majority

Silent majority

South Korea is politically polarized. There is no doubt about that. A recent poll by Kookmin Research Group and Ace Research put President Yoon Suk Yeol’s support at 36.7 percent overall, with 76.9 percent approval among supporters of the governing People Power Party (PPP) and a disapproval rating of 91.9 percent among supporters of the opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK). The political polarization has been criticized heavily in the press and by the public but little seems to change. So, as President Yoon wrapped up his recent state visit to the United States and summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, there was much debate as to the visit’s success. President Yoon was the first Korean president to enjoy a state visit in 12 years, the sixth Korean president to speak to a joint session of the U.S. Congress and the first incumbent Korean president to speak at Harvard University. He was also the first Korean president to receive a briefing at the Pentagon and the first foreign head of state to visit the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), famous for advancing the Internet, GPS and many other technical marvels we take for granted today. Yet, the ink was barely dry on the new Washington Declaration and the Leaders’ Joint Statement in Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Alliance, when DPK leader Lee Jae-myung decried that the new declaration harms South Korea’s national interest by provoking China and Russia. The Justice Party leader Lee Jeong-mi piled on claiming the United States had made unfair demands and that “President Yoon has only nodded to whatever the U.S. said.” Such reactions show the depth of polarization between the country’s political parties, but it is noteworthy for another reason as well. As a middle power, South Korea does not have the luxury of such deep political division regarding its foreign and security policies. South Korea’s foreign policy is at an inflection point. The country is a powerhouse in semiconductors and other advanced technologies, but it is so at a time when economic security concerns are rising for all states. As such, policies like “onshoring” or “reshoring” (making products domestically) and “nearshoring” or “friendshoring” (making products close to home or in aligned states) threaten to shake the foundations of South Korea’s economic growth and security (e.g., its reliance on manufacturing for export). Due to its geopolitical position, lack of resources and the transaction costs of having a non-reserve currency, South Korea has three general options in the global rush to secure supply chains and critical resources: 1) align closer to the United States; 2) align closer to China; or 3) align closer to neither China nor the United States, and rely on its own diplomacy and strength to bolster its position against current onshoring trends. Each is fraught with its own dangers and shortcomings. Former President Moon Jae-in chose to follow a variation of option three above. He chose strategic ambiguity between the great powers with a thrust for inter-Korean peace and a dose of anti-Japanese sentiment. He found no domestic political consensus in trying to placate Beijing and Pyongyang and oversaw the incredible change of fortune in Korea’s trade with China. President Yoon is trying a variation of option one. His vision of South Korea as a “global pivotal state” depends on strengthened relations with the United States and Japan, while calling for a mature and dignified relationship with China. The opposition parties’ reactions to his state visit in the United States indicate the president has found no domestic political consensus either. In November 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon called for support from “the great silent majority” of his fellow Americans. Nixon was looking for clarification from the American people on whether they believed his policies in the Vietnam War were right. To paraphrase a Nixon administration official, the silent majority is a large and normally undemonstrative cross-section of a country that refrains from articulating opinions on pressing political questions. Following the speech, the president’s national approval rating jumped 31 points resulting in overconfidence from the president and his decision to expand the war to Cambodia. Although the president had misinterpreted the results, the silent majority had spoken. As the two largest political parties in South Korea have shown no willingness or desire to find political consensus on the pressing foreign policy issues of today, it is time for the great silent majority of the Korean people to make their voices heard on which foreign policy direction they desire […]

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Daisie Hobson

Daisie Hobson is a Director at the Reshoring Institute and an engineer with many years of experience in manufacturing and project management.

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