from Asia Unbound

Transformation of the U.S.-ROK Alliance and North Korean Threat: A South Korean Public Perspective

July 01, 2009

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South Korea

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Gon Nam-kung is a professor at Ewha Woman’s University.

The U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance has now entered a crucial period in dealing with North Korean nuclear issues. At the same time, the alliance has been responding to the impact of a transformed international environment and South Korea’s democratization. One result of these changes is the rising importance of both political leadership and public opinion as developments that influence the effectiveness and viability of the alliance.

Public opinion polls show that South Korea’s security policy toward the United States remains the basic concern of the South Korean public. Because South Korean views on foreign policy have developed in the context of the U.S.-ROK security system, it is not surprising that South Korean attitudes toward North Korea remain closely associated with their regards toward U.S.-ROK relations.

Some recent assessments of South Korean public opinion concerning the U.S.-ROK relationship appear to have overestimated the extent of hostility in the bilateral relationship. For instance, a 2008 JoongAng Ilbo poll shows that only 23 percent of South Koreans believe that current U.S.-ROK relations are favorable, the lowest score since 1978.

My analysis of public opinion data from a survey conducted by the Seoul-based East Asia Institute in June 2008 shows that South Korean support for the U.S.-ROK security system has persisted despite changes in the international environment, domestic transitions in both South Korea and the United States, strains in bilateral relations, and even a host of economic troubles.

The June 2008 survey shows that 64.5 percent of respondents support the concept of “strategic flexibility” for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), while only 33.5 percent of respondents thought that the only role of USFK is to deter North Korea. There was even stronger public support for the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), with 75.4 percent supporting the FTA while 22.3 percent of those surveyed oppose the FTA. The survey also shows that a majority of South Koreans surveyed have positive feelings about the United States, with 59.7 percent of respondents indicating that they have a great deal or fair amount of favorable feeling toward the United States while 15.1 percent indicated that they have little or no favorable feeling toward the United States. These numbers suggest that South Korean “pro-alliance” support for the political-military, economic, and emotional aspects of the U.S.-ROK relationship is significantly larger than the “anti-alliance” camp within South Korean society.

Additional statistical analysis of this polling data shows that positive South Korean views of the U.S.-ROK alliance are strongly associated with their perceptions of North Korea’s military threat and development of nuclear capabilities. Alliance supporters are dissatisfied with North Korea’s approach to dealing with nuclear issues and are more inclined to perceive North Korea as a definite threat to peninsular and regional stability. Their optimistic evaluation of inter-Korean relations reflects a pragmatic posture that comes from their appreciation of the U.S.-ROK alliance.

South Koreans who identify with the United States and have confidence in USFK’s strategic flexibility are more apt to think of North Korea’s nuclear development as undesirable. There is a clear relationship between South Korean appreciation of the bilateral alliance and their expectations for cooperation on North Korean issues. Likewise, those who support the regional role of the United States in handling the North Korean security threat have more trust in U.S. contributions to South Korea’s defense. The notion that anti-Americanism in South Korean society has evolved with domestic political change should thus be reconsidered.

Public appreciation of the U.S.-ROK alliance enables individual South Koreans to assess bilateral political or military issues in a coherent way. Among the South Korean people, there is overall recognition that a secure and stable South Korea is in U.S. interest and likewise a secure and stable United States benefits South Korea. Yet, South Korean commitment to USFK’s expanded role should not be exaggerated. Pro-alliance South Koreans, who seem to endorse the expanded role of USFK, have no desire to see South Korea challenge the United States.

The majority of South Koreans consider U.S.-ROK relations the most important partnership in addressing inter-Korean relations. Likewise, most South Koreans see the U.S.-ROK alliance framework as the most realistic tool for dealing with North Korean military and nuclear threats. South Korean approaches to the bilateral alliance have evolved incrementally and rationally as a result of the North Korean military threat and changes in the international system.

During his first visit to Washington in April 2008, President Lee Myung-bak presented three core components for the U.S.-ROK strategic alliance: values, trust, and peace. My analysis of the survey data presented here suggests that these three components are gaining sufficient support from the South Korean public.

As South Korea, the United States, and Japan attempt to strengthen UN sanctions and the isolation of North Korea,Pyongyang is expected to maintain its tough stance following its second nuclear test. In order to secure the continued success of the U.S.-ROK alliance, U.S.-ROK relations should develop based on continued public support for shared political, military, economic and cultural interests. Both countries should remain committed to the bilateral alliance in the face of regional and North Korean nuclear challenges. South Korean policymakers should always keep track of the public’s appreciation and support of the U.S.-ROK alliance. By doing so, policymakers can transform the alliance system while maintaining strong public support.