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Amid N. Korea nuclear talks, poll shows high support for S. Korea among Americans

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (center) waves while arriving to the West Wing of the White House with President Donald Trump in Washington on May 22, 2018.

ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG

By ADAM TAYLOR | The Washington Post | Published: October 1, 2018

President Donald Trump may be skeptical about the value of U.S. troops in South Korea, but a new poll suggests an increasingly large majority of Americans favor a continuing 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 that almost three quarters (74 percent) of Americans supported long-term bases in South Korea.

Notably, there was broad agreement across the political spectrum on this issue, 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 shows that there has been majority support for a U.S. military presence in South Korea since at least 2002, when it began polling the issue, this year's survey is the highest level of support they have 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 similar to 62 percent in 2017, but substantially higher than 2015 when 47 percent backed U.S. military action if North Korea invaded.

Again, there was broad bipartisan agreement on the issue, with 63 percent of Democrats, 61 percent of independents, and 70 percent of Republicans in favor.

Roughly 28,000 U.S. troops are located 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 later, after taking office, Trump has repeatedly expressed doubts about keeping American troops in the Asia-Pacific, often focusing on the costs for the U.S. military.

"We have 32,000 soldiers in South Korea," Trump said during a press conference in New York City 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 cause."

The issue of U.S. troops in South Korea has long been politically divisive in South Korea. However, a survey conducted by 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 is.

The latest survey was released as the United States prepares for a potential second summit between Trump and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un, to discuss denuclearization. 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 made few visible efforts to give up its nuclear program since then.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited Pyongyang earlier this month for his third meeting with Kim. Speaking in New York City this week, he said that Kim was sincere about giving up nuclear weapons.

The Chicago Council's polling data showed that six in 10 Americans (59 percent) say that North Korea's nuclear program is a critical threat facing the United States down from last year, when it had reached 75 percent. An 83 percent majority of the country was found to oppose the idea of accepting that North Korea will nuclear weapons and produce more and a slightly smaller majority 66 percent opposed 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 opposed 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 did agree to give up its nuclear weapons, a large majority was in favor of establishing official diplomatic relations with North Korea (77 percent), but they were more mixed on other measures. A narrower 54 percent majority said they supported providing economic and humanitarian aid to the country, while the same percentage said there could be a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.

Less than half (44 percent) said the United States should cancel joint military exercises with South Korea, while just 18 percent said they would support a complete withdrawal of American forces from South Korea.

The poll also found large bipartisan support for South Korea's leader, with 67 percent favorable views of Moon. Despite both Trump and Moon's kind words about North Korea's Kim, the American public has kept an overwhelmingly negative view of him, 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. A total of 2,046 adults living in all 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.
 

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