Not the South Korea we thought we knew

A recent public poll of South Korean citizens counters news reports about anti-US fevor and a tilt toward China.

Media reports dwell on South Korea's frustration with the United States. Concern over the plight of Christian volunteers seized by the Taliban in Afghanistan and angry crowds in Seoul demanding an American withdrawal from the Korean peninsula have fed that image.

However, a recent face-to-face survey of more than 1,000 South Korean citizens (20 years or older) regarding inter-Korean and foreign relations reveals a much more complex and nuanced picture and may offer a few surprises to those who have written off the country as no longer a solid US ally.

Contrary to what we frequently hear from South Korean and US media, even from other Korea scholars and Asia watchers, the top concern among South Koreans is their own national security. The increased anxiety over the North Korean threat and wariness of China may partially explain why South Koreans are drawing closer to the US.

The results of this spring's survey, sponsored by the Fulbright Program, belie both American and Korean news accounts of the Korean public's seeming indifference to the North Korean nuclear program. They also challenge the reports of rising widespread anti-American sentiments and a possible tilt toward China. In light of the upcoming South Korean presidential election in December 2007, the survey offers an intriguing picture of public opinion, which may influence the election's outcome.

Despite persistent news reports about the public's calm in the face of heightening tensions over the North Korean nuclear issue, the survey data show that the South Korean public is alarmed by the nuclear test conducted by North Korea in October 2006 – and reveal support for strong measures to censure and counter its nuclear program.

More than 70 percent of those surveyed believe that North Korea's possession of nuclear arms and the sale of nuclear materials pose a threat to South Korea's national interests.

Furthermore, should North Korea continue to pursue nuclear weapons, a clear majority support South Korea's participation in United Nations sanctions against North Korea, the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative, and the development of its own nuclear weapons. [Editor's note: The original version omitted a key phrase.] Additionally, almost half of the survey participants back US military action to prevent North Korea from proliferating nuclear weapons.

Similarly, the American press has extensively reported rising anti-American sentiments in South Korea in recent years, especially among the younger generation. However, the survey results show that public opinion is, on the whole, favorable toward the US. And the overwhelming majority (92 percent) believes that the South Korea-US alliance should either be maintained or strengthened. Only a small minority (8 percent) says that the alliance should be weakened or terminated.

A majority (55 percent) believe that South Korea, being surrounded by China, Russia, and Japan, should ally itself with a distant power, the US, in order to strengthen its security. A similar percentage is opposed to a precipitous withdrawal of the US troops stationed in South Korea (57 percent). Contrary to the critical comment recently made by Sen. Hillary Clinton that South Koreans are forgetting US contributions to Korea's development, 54 percent believe that the security provided by the US troops has contributed to economic prosperity.

The survey results also contradict the impression of an increasing public tilt toward China. In fact, one of the most striking findings is that the public strongly prefers the US over China.

When asked which of the two countries Korea should maintain close ties with for the sake of its national interest, 20 percent picked China, while an overwhelming 79 percent selected the US.

If faced with the sudden collapse of the North Korean regime, a mere 4 percent believe that Korea should cooperate with China to deal with the crisis, whereas 28 percent favor the US. The rest chose the UN or the "six-party talks group" or preferred that South Korea act alone.

Only 26 percent believe that China takes into account Korean interests in dealing with North Korea over the nuclear issue, while 56 percent believe the US considers South Korea's interests.

The survey also shows that the assessment of China is uniformly negative, especially in comparison with the US. Moreover, public wariness and suspicion of China seem particularly intense, and 81 percent believe China's rise poses a threat to Korea's national interests. Nearly the same percentage (82 percent) interpret the claim of Chinese state-sponsored revisionists – that Koguryo, an ancient Korean kingdom, was actually a Chinese regional province – as an ominous reflection of present-day territorial ambitions.

Likewise, a large majority (74 percent) believes that the Chinese are seeking to exert influence over the reunification of the two Koreas by propping up the North Korean regime with extensive aid.

Haesook Chae is a professor of political science at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. Steven Kim is a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

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