South Korea and its relationship with the United States has become an issue in the 2016 US presidential election. Donald Trump has repeatedly included South Korea in a group that he considers free-riding allies, unwilling to contribute more to their own defense. That criticism, however, has done little to dampen support for the US-Korea alliance in the United States. In fact, in a series of questions in the 2016 Chicago Council Survey—conducted June 10-27, 2016—American attitudes toward South Korea and our military alliance remain positive.
The United States has maintained military bases in South Korea since the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), and there are currently 28,500 troops in the country. Under the current Special Measures Agreement, South Korea pays roughly $860 million per year for the stationing of these troops. Along with other contributions, this amounts to roughly 45 percent of non-personnel costs.
While the American public at large may not be aware of the details of these contributions, three quarters (72%) of Americans say that US relations with South Korea are either staying about the same (58%) or improving (14%). At the same time, support for maintaining military bases in South Korea is at an all-time high. In the 2016 survey, fully 70 percent state that the United States should maintain long-term bases in South Korea, up from 64 percent in 2015.
Even more striking, there is strong support across political party affiliation. Republicans (76%), Democrats (70%), and Independents (64%) all support bases in South Korea. That support even extends to Trump supporters (72%).
One reason for this increased support appears to be the growing perception of North Korea as a critical threat to the United States. In 2016, six in ten Americans think that North Korea’s nuclear program is a critical threat to the United States. That trails only international terrorism (75% critical) and is virtually tied with the possibility of unfriendly countries becoming nuclear powers (61%) on a list of 13 possible threats. For North Korea’s nuclear program, this is a 5 percentage point increase from 2015 when the question was first asked.
Among those that cite North Korea’s nuclear program as a threat, 75 percent support long-term bases in South Korea. For those that think it is an important but not critical threat support for bases falls to 63 percent. And among those that think it is not an important threat, a minority (45%) support bases.
As noted in a previous post, Americans support a range of options in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program, as shown in Figure 2.
Of course, there is little affinity among Americans for North Korea. In fact, North Korea was the least favored country among Americans on a list of 12 countries. On a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 representing the highest possible favorability, North Korea (19) was the only country to fall below 20. The next closest country was Iran at 26.
In contrast, the favorability of South Korea remains at its highest recorded value (55) since the question was first asked in 1978. That favorability also extends to Korean immigrants living in the United States. Two-thirds (67%) of Americans have a favorable view of Korean immigrants.
Taken together, this data suggests that the campaign rhetoric that has taken aim at South Korea has not negatively impacted views of South Korea or of the US-Korea alliance. In fact, it seems that the American public would welcome closer cooperation between the two countries.
 Mark Manyin, et. al. “U.S.-South Korea Relations”. Congressional Research Service. April 26, 2016.