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Coronavirus Disease 2019

How COVID-19 Changed Intergroup Attitudes in South Korea

The pandemic raised both negative and positive attitudes toward the North

Key points

  • We examined South Koreans' attitudes toward North Koreans before and after the pandemic.
  • Following the outbreak, South Koreans exhibited higher fear of North Koreans, leading to greater support for aggressive policies against them.
  • At the same time, South Koreans also exhibited more empathy toward North Koreans, leading to increased willingness to assist them.
  • These seemingly contradictory trends are explained by the two identities many South Koreans hold: one ethnic and the other national.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a serious threat to the health and wellbeing of humanity, with the full extent of its ripple effects still unknown. Beyond its influence on global health and the economy, the pandemic bears a dramatic impact on relations between social groups, especially those engaged in long-term conflict.

Hypotheses on the link between external threats (such as a global pandemic) and intergroup relations can be divided into two seemingly contradictory approaches. The first hypothesizes an increase in intergroup hostility as a response to external threats (Van Bavel et al., 2020). The second postulates a rise in unity and collaboration aimed at dealing with the threat (Bodenhausen et al., 2000).

Existing research on the link between COVID-19 and intergroup relations leaves us equally perplexed, with findings suggesting that the threat from COVID-19 has increased both negative and positive attitudes toward people from other social groups (Adam-Troian & Bagci, 2020, Adler et al., 2022). So, which one is it?

 Kibock Do/Unsplash
Source: Kibock Do/Unsplash

The Korean peninsula provides a unique context to explore the potential duality by which COVID-19 may affect intergroup relations. South Koreans hold ambivalent attitudes toward North Korea, with both favorable and hostile feelings mingled together. The root of the ambivalence lies in South Korean's two identities, ethnically as Koreans and nationally as South Koreans.

Before the division of the Koreas in 1945, South and North Korea had been a united nation for a thousand years. Common culture, history, and language create a solid ethnic identity shared by all those living in the peninsula. However, for more than 70 years, the two Koreas have been divided with two completely different political regimes in place. It, therefore, appears to be natural that people living in South and North Korea also have distinct national identities. Koreans' dual identities create a unique circumstance where an external threat may simultaneously generate hostility and empathy towards Koreans from the other side of the border.

How Can External Threats Aggravate Intergroup Relations?

To reduce anxiety caused by external threats, people will tend to boost their identification with their social group and distance themselves from those perceived as "different." These tendencies might be especially relevant for those already engaged in longstanding conflicts like the South and North Koreans.

Furthermore, because North Korea hasn't revealed any data on the magnitude and severity of the outbreak, South Koreans' fear of the North is likely to be intertwined with fear of the pandemic. This fear, in turn, often leads to increased hostility towards the outgroup. However, there may also be some constructive pandemic-driven outcomes with regard to intergroup conflict.

How Can External Threats Improve Intergroup Relations?

On the other hand, during an external threat, perceiving one's ingroup and outgroup as being in the 'same boat' is likely to increase perceived similarities between the groups and improve intergroup attitudes and behaviors. In fact, the UN stated it considers COVID-19 to be a transformative event that can reduce inequalities through expanding systems for the universal provision of quality public services (UN/DESA, 2020), calling, in essence, for international unification to fight the pandemic.

Indeed, research shows that threat may induce stronger empathy to former outgroup members, leading to increased willingness to cooperate with and assist the outgroup (Batson & Ahmad, 2009). Greater support for intergroup cooperation is probable in the case of the Korean conflict, where both sides share ethnicity, language, history, and geographical borders.

The Dual Effect of COVID-19 on the Korean Conflict

Our recently published paper in the Journal of Conflict Resolution (Nir et al., 2022) compared original data collected in South Korea before and during the outbreak. The sample consisted of over a thousand South Koreans in each time measurement as part of an annual study conducted by the Korean Institute for National Unification.

Results show that participants' identification as South Koreans increased following the outbreak, which, in turn, was associated with their support of aggressive policies toward the North. Paradoxically, and aligned with the common ingroup theory, these same participants also identified stronger as Koreans, which was associated with greater empathy toward North Koreans and greater support for cross-border collaboration to fight the health crisis. These effects were above and beyond participants' ideology or their social orientation.

Although these findings appear contradictory, both paths serve complimentary functions in aiding people to cope with external threats such as world pandemics. While the first path addresses fears of spreading infection and an enhanced sense of vulnerability, the other strives for greater inclusiveness in cooperation against the threat.

Overall, while the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatic and catastrophic effects on human beings and groups, it may also serve as a powerful social "reshuffling" tool, helping people in conflict rise above the "us and them" framework toward a united "we." As in interpersonal relations, it turns out that we can love and hate at the same time and be simultaneously helpful and destructive towards an outgroup that is similar and different to us.

Recognizing the driving force behind each of these processes is the first step in increasing the constructive while minimizing the destructive potential of the effects of external threats on relations between groups engaged in intractable conflict. Moreover, eliciting ways to strengthen the common ethnic Korean identification is a critical mission in achieving reconciliation in the Korean peninsula.

This post was written by Nimrod Nir and Eran Halperin.


Adam-Troian, Jais, bagci, Sabahat. 2020 “The pathogen paradox: Evidence that perceived COVID-19 threat is associated with both pro-and anti-immigrant attitudes."

Adler, E., Hebel-Sela, S., Leshem, O. A., Levy, J., & Halperin, E. (2022). A social virus: Intergroup dehumanization and unwillingness to aid amidst COVID-19 − Who are the main targets?☆. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 86, 109–121.

Batson, C. Daniel, Ahmad, Nadia Y.. 2009. “Using empathy to improve intergroup attitudes and relations.” Social Issues and Policy Review 3, no. 1: 141‐177

.Bodenhausen, Galen V., Mussweiler, Thomas, Gabriel, Shira, Moreno, Kristen N.. 2000. “Affective influences on stereotyping and intergroup relations affective influences on stereotyping and intergroup relations.” In Handbook of affect and social cognition, 321‐ Behaviour 4: 1‐12.

Nir N, Halperin E, Park J. The Dual Effect of COVID-19 on Intergroup Conflict in the Korean Peninsula. Journal of Conflict Resolution. June 2022. doi:10.1177/00220027221107088

Van Bavel, Jay J., Baicker, Katherine, Boggio, Paulo S., Capraro, Valerio, Cichocka, Aleksandra, Cikara, Mina, Crockett, Molly J.. 2020. “Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response.” Nature Human Behaviour 4: 1‐12.

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