The data also showed that if no agreement could be reached between Washington and Seoul on the costs of hosting the troops, a slight majority of South Koreans prefer reducing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea, while about 1 in 10 said that all U.S. troops should be removed.
The data is more evidence of how cost-sharing over the stationing of U.S. troops in the country has become a flash point of tensions between the two allies, despite their long-standing military relationship and the South Korean government’s ongoing attempts to facilitate talks between the United States and North Korea.
President Trump has made the divided peninsula one of the key focal points of his foreign policy, becoming the first sitting American leader to meet with his North Korean counterpart when he held a summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June 2018. Trump has visited South Korea twice since entering office in January 2017.
But Trump, who has long complained that foreign nations were taking advantage of the U.S. military, has repeatedly returned to issues related to the cost of stationing 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea, which he described as a “very wealthy nation” that could afford more.
His administration demanded that South Korea increase its contribution to the funding of U.S. troops fivefold to nearly $5 billion, according to officials on both sides. That amount has prompted significant controversy in South Korea, where talks with U.S. officials broke down in November; the next round of talks is due to begin this week.
The poll found that most South Koreans — 94 percent — consider their country’s relationship with the United States vital for their national security, a larger percentage than for other countries tested in the survey (including North Korea, which 83 percent of South Koreans considered important).
South Koreans tend to view their country’s relationship with the United States positively, with 92 percent supporting the alliance and 62 percent favoring closer ties with the United States even if it harmed relations with China, South Korea’s neighboring economic and political giant. Just about three-quarters of South Koreans favored the long-term stationing of troops in South Korea.
But few South Koreans agreed with the U.S. demands for money; 26 percent said the country should refuse any increase in costs, and 68 percent said South Korea should negotiate a lower cost. A scant 4 percent said South Korea should meet the full U.S. request.
South Korea agreed earlier this year to pay about $890 million toward the cost of stationing U.S. troops in the country, amounting to roughly 40 percent of the day-to-day expenses for the troops. It also provides land rent-free to the U.S. military and paid the vast majority of the $10.7 billion cost of a new American military base, Camp Humphreys.
According to the survey data, 41 percent of South Koreans argued that their country should not pay more than $1.7 billion, a little under twice what they pay now but far below the $5 billion the Trump administration has demanded.
Opposition to paying more for U.S. troops but support for the military alliance in general appears to be relatively consistent. A separate poll conducted in early 2019 on behalf of the Asan Institute found that 45 percent of South Koreans said contributions should stay at the same level, compared to 28 percent who said they should increase.
The negotiations over the cost of the troops come at a tough time for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a liberal who came power in a swell of support after the collapse of a conservative government in 2017.
Moon’s approval ratings have dropped since his first year in office, in part due to tensions with the United States over stalled North Korea peace talks and a series of controversial attempts at economic reform. Hankook’s research found that 49 percent said Moon is “doing a little good” or “doing very well” as president, while 48 percent rated him negatively.
But skepticism about paying more for U.S. troops appeared to cross party lines — 80 percent of South Koreans who said they supported the Liberty Korea Party, the main conservative party in the country and traditionally pro-American, also wanted to negotiate a lower cost for troops, as did 66 percent of those identifying with the governing Democratic Party.
A recent editorial in the Chosun Ilbo, a dominant conservative newspaper, accused U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris of using “Trump tactics” to pressure South Korea. “The 66-year-old alliance between South Korea and the U.S. is shaking with money problems, which is an unimaginable development,” the paper said in November.
Polls of the American public have found majority support for keeping U.S. troops in South Korea. A Chicago Council survey earlier this year found 51 percent wanted to keep ground troops in the country, with 58 supporting the use of American troops if North Korea invaded the South.
The Chicago Council poll of Korean adults was conducted by Hankook research Dec. 9-11 among a national sample of 1,000 adults ages 19 and older using live telephone interviewers, with 86 percent of interviews conducted on mobile phones.