Perceptions of American Military Presence in South Korea
Security, Cost, and Public Opinion: A Review of US Military Presence in South Korea
The paper under review, titled 'South Korean Perceptions of the US Military Presence: Priming and the Trump Effect', is a collaborative effort by a team of researchers led by Dr. Timothy S. Rich, an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Western Kentucky University. Dr. Rich, a specialist in East Asian politics, is joined in this endeavor by Isabel Eliassen and Madelynn Einhorn, both of whom are accomplished students from the same institution. Eliassen, a graduate in international affairs, Chinese and linguistics, has a keen interest in language policy, while Einhorn, a political science and economics major, has a strong focus on East Asian politics. Their combined expertise and diverse academic backgrounds provide a solid foundation for this research.
The paper delves into the perceptions of South Koreans regarding the United States’ military presence in their country, with a particular focus on the influence of cost-sharing demands made by the Trump administration. The study employs a survey-based approach to gather data, which is then analyzed to draw conclusions about the impact of these demands on South Korean public opinion. The paper also explores the influence of various demographic and attitudinal factors on these perceptions. This review will provide a detailed analysis of the paper's methodology, findings, and conclusions, as well as its implications for the broader field of East Asian politics.
The literature review section of the paper provides a comprehensive overview of the existing body of research on the topic. It begins by acknowledging the high levels of support for the American-South Korean military alliance among South Koreans, citing a 2019 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey that found 74% of South Koreans support the stationing of US troops in South Korea and that 87% agree that the US troops’ presence aids South Korea’s national security. However, the authors also note that over half of South Koreans believe that the US and South Korea are working in different directions in areas such as regional security and the denuclearization of North Korea.
The authors then delve into the factors that can influence public opinion on the American military presence in South Korea. They discuss the role of prospect theory, which suggests that people tend to focus on financial costs rather than benefits. This theory is supported by research showing that South Koreans are sensitive to policy decisions when primed to consider the cost. The authors also highlight the impact of demographic factors, such as age and education, on perceptions of the US military presence. For instance, older South Koreans, with memories of the Cold War and previous concerns about North Korean military actions, are more supportive of the US presence.
The literature review also discusses the differences in support between conservatives and progressives, with conservatives being more supportive of the US nuclear umbrella and US military presence. However, existing research has said little about whether progressives and conservatives view the cost-share differently or whether one group is more sensitive to cost-share rhetoric. The authors also note the gender divide in support for the US military presence, with issues such as sexual assault by US military personnel likely influencing broader perceptions of the US presence among women.
The authors also discuss the influence of local factors, such as the presence of US military bases in certain regions, on public opinion. They note that existing work differentiates between those living near bases and those that do not. For instance, Snyder et al. (2019) found that South Koreans in the Gyeongbuk, Gangwon/Jeju, Gyeongnam and Seoul regions were most supportive of the US presence.
US Military Presence in Korea
The literature review concludes by discussing how the US presence plays into eventual reunification, which may also shape views. While public opinion data finds that South Koreans tend to support unification, as younger voters have increasingly influenced politics, South Koreans are prioritizing reunification less. The authors propose several hypotheses which you can see below
H1: Those who believe the US shares the same concerns as SK will be more supportive of the US presence (a) and to paying more of the share of its costs (b)
H2: Those who are concerned about North Korean aggression will be more supportive of the US presence (a) and to paying more of the share of its costs (b)
H3: Priming respondents to think of President Trump’s demand for money will decrease views of seeing the US military presence as crucial (a) and to paying more of the share of its costs (b)
H4: Moving left to right on the ideological spectrum will correspond with more supportive of the US continued presence (a) and to paying more of the share of its costs (b)
The research design of the study involved a comprehensive web survey conducted from September 9-18, 2020. The survey was administered by Macromill Embrain and included 1,200 South Korean participants. The participant selection was based on quota sampling, which took into account factors such as age, region and gender.
The survey incorporated a variety of demographic variables to ensure a broad and representative sample. These variables included gender, represented by a dummy variable for females, and age cohort, measured on a five-point scale. The participants' education level was also taken into account, ranging from under high school to completed graduate school, and was measured on a six-point scale.
In addition, the survey considered the participants' monthly household income, which was measured on an eight-point scale. Lastly, the participants' political ideology was assessed on a seven-point scale.
The research revealed a moderate level of concern among South Koreans about potential North Korean aggression, with an average concern rating of 6.03 on a scale of 1 to 10. This concern was slightly more pronounced among women and less so among progressives as opposed to moderates and conservatives. Interestingly, a significant majority (58.58%) of South Koreans do not believe that the US shares South Korea's concerns about North Korea. However, a plurality (42.08%) believe that the US military presence aids prospects of Korean unification, a view more commonly held by men and conservatives.
The study also discovered that referencing President Trump's demands for more money reduces the perceived necessity of the US military presence by about a third of a point on a five-point scale. This suggests that South Koreans are sensitive to cost considerations and implicitly associate the issues of cost and security. However, the study found no significant difference in the suggested cost-share between those who received a version of the survey question mentioning Trump's demands and those who did not.
The study also found that less than one in five respondents opposed the US military presence in South Korea. However, there were clear distinctions in support based on gender and political ideology, with men and conservatives more likely to support the presence. The study also found that mentioning Trump's demands led to questions about whether American assistance was crucial, but it did not prime respondents to want to pay less, suggesting the limits of a 'Trump factor.’
The study found that while South Koreans view the US military presence as crucial, they are sensitive to cost considerations and implicitly associate the issues of cost and security. The study also found that other domestic factors unrelated to North Korea weigh more heavily on the public's views of the US military presence. The public may not be fully aware of the total costs associated with the US presence or what President Trump's proposed changes would have entailed in terms of this presence.
These insights are particularly pertinent given the current geopolitical landscape, characterized by ongoing tensions between North and South Korea, and the US’ strategic role in the region.
The reported sensitivity to the costs of an American military presence among the South Korean public has significant implications for US foreign policy and negotiations with South Korea regarding cost-sharing for the US military presence.
Moreover, the study reveals that domestic factors unrelated to North Korea significantly influence the public's views of the US military presence. This finding suggests that discussions or negotiations concerning the US military presence in South Korea must consider a broad range of factors, including domestic issues and public sentiment.
The research underscores the importance of understanding the complexities of public opinion in foreign countries where the US maintains a military presence. As the geopolitical landscape continues to evolve, studies like this one offer valuable insights that can inform policy decisions and diplomatic strategies.
In the current context, where North Korea's missile testing in 2022 and 2023, and the Yoon Suk-Yeol administration's desire for stronger relations with the US may have further warmed the South Korean public on the US presence, these findings are especially relevant. They suggest that while cost considerations are important, they do not necessarily translate into a desire for a reduced US presence. Instead, security concerns and the perceived benefits of the US alliance continue to play a significant role in shaping public opinion.
In conclusion, the study by Rich, Eliassen, and Inhorn offers a comprehensive understanding of the factors influencing South Korean public opinion on the US military presence. As we navigate the complexities of the current geopolitical climate, such insights are invaluable in shaping effective and informed foreign policy decisions.
Thank you for taking the time to read this comprehensive review. We hope it has provided you with valuable insights into the complex dynamics of South Korean public opinion on the US military presence. The original research paper offers a more detailed exploration of this topic, and we highly recommend reading it for a deeper understanding. The authors, Timothy S. Rich, Isabel Eliassen, and Madelynne Inhorn, have done an excellent job in shedding light on this important issue. You can access the full article here. Your engagement and interest in this topic contribute to the ongoing dialogue on international relations and security.