President Trump may be skeptical about the value of U.S. troops in South Korea, but a new poll suggests an increasing majority of Americans favor continuing a military presence in the country — and most say they would support a U.S. military intervention in case of a conflict.
The polling data, collected in July by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, found almost three quarters (74 percent) of Americans supported long-term bases in South Korea.
Notably, there was broad agreement across the political spectrum, with 73 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents and 79 percent of Republicans in favor of the bases.
Though the Chicago Council’s data show there has been majority support for a U.S. military presence in South Korea since 2002, when it began polling the issue, this year’s survey is the highest level of support it has recorded.
Americans are also more willing than they have been in decades to send U.S. troops to support South Korea if the country were to be invaded by North Korea, the Chicago Council found, with 64 percent in favor — more than double who said the same in 1986, the first time the question was asked.
Support for coming to South Korea’s defense is only two percentage points above what it was in 2017, but it’s substantially higher than results for 2015, when 47 percent backed U.S. military action.
Again, there was broad bipartisan agreement on military action, with 63 percent of Democrats, 61 percent of independents, and 70 percent of Republicans in favor.
Roughly 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed on the Korean Peninsula as part of a security arrangement that has been in place since the Korean War armistice in 1953. During the campaign and after taking office, Trump has repeatedly expressed doubts about keeping American troops in the Asia-Pacific region, often focusing on costs for the U.S. military.
“We have 32,000 soldiers in South Korea,” Trump said during a news conference in New York this week, using a higher figure that analysts said is inaccurate. “They are very wealthy. These are great countries. These are very wealthy countries. I said, ‘Why aren’t you reimbursing us for our [costs]?’”
Having U.S. troops in South Korea has long been politically divisive in South Korea. However, a survey conducted by the East Asia Institute in 2015 found 61 percent of South Koreans thought U.S. troop numbers in the broader Asia-Pacific region should be kept as they are.
The release of the Chicago Council survey comes as the United States prepares for a potential second summit between Trump and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un, to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The two leaders met in Singapore on June 12 and reached a vague agreement that called for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but Pyongyang has since made few visible efforts to give up its nuclear program.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited Pyongyang this month for his third meeting with Kim. Speaking in New York this week, he said Kim was sincere about giving up nuclear weapons.
The Chicago Council’s polling data show 6 in 10 Americans think North Korea’s nuclear program is a critical threat facing the United States — down from last year, when it reached 75 percent. Eighty-three percent of the country opposes the idea of accepting North Korea’s possession and production of nuclear weapons and 66 percent oppose accepting North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons in exchange for an agreement that it would not produce more.
There was little support for U.S. military acts against North Korea in retaliation for its nuclear program, with 57 percent of Americans opposing airstrikes against North Korean facilities and 69 percent opposing the use of U.S. troops to overthrow the Kim regime. In contrast, 77 percent of Americans favored tightening economic sanctions on North Korea if it did not abandon its nuclear program, the Chicago Council found.
If North Korea agrees to give up its nuclear weapons, 77 percent of Americans are in favor of establishing official diplomatic relations with the country, but they were mixed on other actions. Fifty-four percent support providing economic and humanitarian aid to the country, while the same percentage are okay with a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.
Forty-four percent said the United States should cancel joint military exercises with South Korea, while 18 percent said they support a complete withdrawal of American forces from South Korea.
The poll also found large bipartisan support for South Korea’s leader, with favorable views of Moon at 67 percent. Despite Trump and Moon’s kind words about Kim, Americans have an overwhelmingly negative view of Kim, with only 6 percent professing a favorable view.
The Chicago Council’s analysis was based on data from an online research panel conducted by GfK Custom Research between July 12 and July 31, and 2,046 adults living in the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia were surveyed, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points. The GfK Knowledge Panel was recruited through random sampling methods.