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

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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