February 4, 2019 | By Karl Friedhoff

South Korean Public Ready to Call Trump's Bluff

The United States and South Korea are currently negotiating host nation support for the 28,500 US troops in the country and negotiations are not going well. The Trump administration has demanded that South Korea double its contribution from $855 million each year, and there is speculation that President Trump will threaten to withdraw those forces if his demands are not met. The South Korean public is largely ready to call the president’s bluff.

In a poll fielded in South Korea in late January by RealMeter, a majority of South Koreans (59%) oppose accommodating US demands on increased burden sharing support (26% are in favor). It is especially notable that there are virtually no significant divides across demographic groups. Pluralities—and majorities in most cases—of all ages, regions, ideological leanings, and party affiliations are in opposition to Seoul giving in to US demands. The lone outlier are supporters of Liberty Party Korea, the main conservative opposition party. Even there, 45 percent support giving in to US demands versus 39 percent who oppose.

Question: Should South Korea accommodate US demands to increase the share of defense costs? (%)

 

 

Favor

Oppose

Overall

 

26

59

Age

20s

33

48

30s

25

61

40s

29

61

50s

26

64

60+

19

58

Region

Seoul

28

55

Incheon/Gyeonggi

22

61

Daejon/Chungbuk/Chungnam

34

53

Gwangju/Chonbuk/Chonnam

13

70

Daegu/Gyeongbuk

22

59

Busan/Ulsan/Gyeongnam

35

57

Ideology

Progressive

19

70

Mid-Roader

29

62

Conservative

34

50

Party

Democratic Party

12

76

Liberty Korea Party

45

39

Bareunmirae

18

60

Justice Party

23

68

 

In the same survey, respondents were asked about their views if the United States played the “troop reduction or withdrawal card.” This only shifts attitudes slightly. A majority (52%) continue to oppose acquiescing to US demands even if the US threatens troop reductions or withdrawal. Support rises slightly to 31 percent. Again, opposition is largely consistent across age, region, ideological leanings, and party affiliations.

Question: Should South Korea accommodate US demands to increase the share of defense costs if the US plays the troop reduction or withdrawal card? (%)

 

 

 

Favor

Oppose

Overall

 

31

52

Age

20s

39

41

30s

29

59

40s

34

54

50s

29

56

60+

25

51

Region

Seoul

32

50

Incheon/Gyeonggi

25

57

Daejon/Chungbuk/Chungnam

30

52

Gwangju/Chonbuk/Chonnam

17

61

Daegu/Gyeongbuk

37

38

Busan/Ulsan/Gyeongnam

39

52

Ideology

Progressive

13

70

Mid-Roader

34

53

Conservative

50

34

Party

Democratic Party

10

71

Liberty Korea Party

57

27

Bareunmirae

49

44

Justice Party

22

73

 

From the outset of these negotiations, one of the worst possible outcomes was for President Trump to openly threaten a troop reduction or withdrawal if South Korea did not meet his demands. Doing so was widely expected to unite South Koreans across the political spectrum. Now we have data points that suggest this is precisely the case. If the president wants to wreck at least 10 years of solid South Korean public support for the US-Korea alliance, he is already headed down the right path.

 

Note: This post was updated to clarify question wording.

About

Dina Smeltz joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February 2012 as a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy, and directed the Council’s 2012 survey of American public opinion (see Foreign Policy in the New Millennium).  She has nearly 20 years of experience in designing and fielding international social, political and foreign policy surveys.

As the director of research in the Middle East and South Asia division (2001-2007) and analyst/director of the European division (1992-2004) in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department’s Office of Research, Dina conducted over a hundred surveys in these regions and regularly briefed senior government officials on key research findings. Her experience includes mass public and elite surveys as well as qualitative research.  She has written numerous policy-relevant reports on Arab, Muslim and South Asian regional attitudes toward political, economic, social and foreign policy issues.  Her writing also includes policy briefs and reports on the post-1989 political transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, and European attitudes toward a wide range foreign policy issues including globalization, European integration, immigration, NATO, and European security.

With a special emphasis research in post-conflict situations (informally referred to as a “combat pollster”), Dina has worked with research teams in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel-Palestinian Territories and in Iraq (2003-2005), where she was one of the few people on the ground who could accurately report average Iraqis impressions of the postwar situation.  In the past three years, Dina has consulted for several NGOs and research organizations on projects spanning women’s development in Afghanistan, civil society in Egypt and evaluating voter education efforts in Iraq.

Dina has an MA from the University of Michigan and a BS from Pennsylvania State University.

Feel free to email Dina with comments or questions at dsmeltz@thechicagocouncil.org

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