South Korean-US Defense Ties Enjoy Deep Popular Support

This map view underscores why the impact of enhanced and more agile defense capabilities in South Korea has an immediate impact on the defense of Japan (Credit image: Bigstock)

2012-10-30 by Richard Weitz

The US alliance with South Korea is a key element of US Pacific strategy.

How the US relationship with South Korea evolves will be a key element of the overall evolution of any 21st century Pacific strategy.

This past week saw the 44th annual U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) Security Consultative meeting, with visiting South Korean National Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta underscoring the vitality and durability of the almost six-decades’ old bilateral alliance.

Now is a good occasion to assess the state of the alliance with the possible change in government in both countries.

Any analysis of the relationship must begin by noting South Korea’s transformation into a true multiparty democracy, with the direct popular election of President Roh Tae-woo in late 1987.

This transformation has resulted in South Korean public opinion playing an increasing role in ROK policy making. The past decade has seen a remarkable turnaround in South Korean views of key elements of American foreign policy.

The nadir in South Korean attitudes towards the United States occurred in late 2002 and early 2003.

The decline resulted from several immediate factors, including an incident at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in which an Australian judge disqualified a ROK speed skater, allowing an American to win the gold medal, and the November 2002 decision of a U.S. military tribunal to acquit two American soldiers who had killed two South Korean schoolgirls in a traffic accident during a June 2002 military exercise. These and other incidents led to the advent of the so-called “candlelight” demonstrations against US policies.

This map view underscores why the impact of enhanced and more agile defense capabilities in South Korea has an immediate impact on the defense of Japan (Credit image: Bigstock)
The South Koreans live in a dangerous neighborhood. And over the past few years, South Koreans see the US alliance as a key element in ensuring security in that neighborhood. The rise of China is both and consequence of such a shift in perceptions.(Credit image: Bigstock 

From a longer-term perspective, the advent of new generations of South Korean voters who had not experienced directly the trauma of the Korean War or even the tensest periods of the Cold War likely contributed to a South Korean populace less appreciative of American policies.

Many South Koreans belonging to the “3-8-6 generation” (those then in their 30s who attended college, and likely participated in leftwing student movements, during the 1980s, and were born during the 1960s) believed the United States sustained South Korea’s authoritarian governments before 1987.

Public opinion polls highlighted both the widespread presence of anti-American sentiments among many South Koreans and its ambivalent and shallow nature.

For example, a September 2003 survey revealed that 23.7 percent of the respondents designated the United States as the country they liked the least, second only to Japan (25.6 percent) and far ahead of third-placed North Korea (12.7 percent). Sixty-one percent of the respondents also described the U.S.-ROK relationship as “pretty bad.”

Yet, the same survey revealed the ambiguous nature of South Korean attitudes towards the United States when it found that more respondents (18.5 percent) listed the United States as the country they most liked than any other (Australia came in second with 10.2 percent).

Furthermore, 87.3 percent of the respondents answered that American military forces in South Korea played a “very important” or “pretty important” role in stabilizing the country’s security. More than sixty-two percent of the respondents wanted these forces to remain in South Korea “for a decent amount of time.” Ten percent said they would want them to “stay even after reunification” between the two Koreas.

A July 2004 poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the East Asia Institute in South Korea continued to show an ambivalent attitude on the part of most South Koreans towards the United States. The survey found a widespread congruence between Americans and South Koreans on a number of international security and economic issues.

For example, approximately 80 percent of both publics indicate they would support U.S. military action to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability if the United Nations and the governments of South Korea and other U.S. allies approved.

More than half the respondents identified the United States as South Korea’s preferred partner (the next highest, China, lagged far behind at 24 percent) and want to keep the number of American troops based in the ROK unchanged, though many would accept a reduction. Seventy-eight percent of the survey respondents perceives the United States as having a beneficial impact on their security.

An overwhelming number (89 percent) thought the United States would defend their country from a North Korean attack. Sixty percent expressed support for keeping U.S. forces in South Korea as a means of enhancing regional stability, even if this contribution could have required them to engage in conflicts beyond the peninsula. More than 90 percent believed that the South Korean-U.S. alliance should continue in some form even after the political reunification of the Korean peninsula, though 31 percent of the total would have favored reducing its importance.

Differences persisted, however, on a considerable number of core issues.

Forty percent believed the planned reduction of U.S. troops in South Korea by one-third would be bad for South Korea’s security. Fifty percent of the South Korean respondents viewed U.S. unilateralism as a critical threat to their vital interests, a slightly higher percentage than those who perceived a comparable threat from Japanese military power (47 percent) or China’s rising global power (46 percent).

The respondents expressed equally warm feelings (58 out of a possible 100) towards China as towards the United States. Eighty-five percent argued that the United States should be more willing to abide by U.N. decisions even when they conflicted with preferred American policies. Fifty-one percent advocated South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons. Seventy-two percent of the South Korean respondents perceived U.S. trade practices as treating South Koreans unfairly. Seventy-eight percent favored creating an integrated regional community of East Asian countries, along the lines of the European Union, which would have included China, Japan and South Korea but not the United States.

Finally, the South Korean respondents expressed wide support for the “Sunshine Policy” of seeking to improve relations with North Korea through economic and other inducements. Fifty-two percent wanted to keep the policy, and 29 percent even favored strengthening it. Only 19 percent wanted to discard the approach and adopt a harder line.

Now fast-forward a decade.

Earlier this month, the German Marshal Fund and the Asian Institute for Policy Studies released a study of contemporary South Korean opinion that showed that South Korean support for the alliance is now twice as high as a decade ago.

The numbers are 80-90 percent today versus some 40 percent in 2012.

International Trends – Korea 2012

Eighty-four percent would even favor continuing the alliance if Korean unification occurred, though only two thirds would favor keeping American troops on the Korean Peninsula, with support generally lowest among the young respondents, but interesting not the youngest, who seem to have been most affected by the recent DPRK provocations in 2010 and the ROK’s confrontations with Japan.

Most ROK respondents described ROK-U.S. ties as good and consider the ROK’s ties with the United States as more important for advancing their country’s national interests than those with other Asian countries.

Whereas 67% of the South Korean respondents favored strong U.S. leadership in global affairs, almost equal numbers disapproved of strong Chinese or Russian leadership in world affairs. Three-fourths of the respondents described the United States favorably, while 70% had unfavorable opinions of North Korea and 62% had unfavorable views regarding Japan

Part of the reason for the resurging popularity of the United States among South Koreans may be their rising fear of China’s military power, which is seen as threatening by some 75 percent of the respondents.

Unease about developments in North Korea also persists, although there is some hope that the new DPRK leadership might eventually reduce bilateral tensions. Negative feelings toward Japan are high, but U.S. officials have been careful to try to avoid siding with Tokyo on its territorial dispute with Seoul, so perhaps Washington is seen as an honest broker in this conflict.