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SEOUL — Asked to name the biggest threat to their national security, more South Koreans chose the United States than chose North Korea, a new survey of 800 adults across the country discovered.

According to Research & Research Inc., a polling agency established in 1989, a Jan. 5 poll found 39 percent named the United States as the most threatening country to South Korean defense; 33 percent chose North Korea. Of the rest, 11.6 percent of respondents named China and 7.6 percent said Japan.

The survey’s authors said the numbers could reflect the South Korean government’s recent decision to send 3,000 more troops to Iraq and the United States’ reported pressure to continue beef imports after a mad cow case was discovered in Washington state.

Those recent factors might heighten some respondents’ hostility toward the United States, they said.

“But we didn’t expect that the United States would beat North Korea,” Lee Kyong-sok, a senior researcher at Research & Research Inc., said Tuesday.

“With so many diplomatic issues related to the United States with Korea lately as the United States presidential election is coming, we thought it’s about time to check on how we, Koreans, are accepting all these matters,” Lee said, explaining the motivation for the survey.

However, the survey also showed the majority of respondents predicting the relationship between the United States and North Korea would improve. More than 55 percent said the relationship would get better; 24 percent said it would get worse. The remaining respondents said they were unsure.

The survey was the latest in a series of monthly national polls, Lee said, most of which dealt with domestic political issues. The survey had a plus or minus 3.5 percent margin of error, he said.

Research & Research Inc. is South Korea’s first polling agency certified under the International Organization for Standardization “ISO 9001” system.

Expressing some worries over the survey findings, professor Han Young-sup of the National Defense University provided possible reasons for the results.

Han cited international tension caused by the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Many South Koreans feel their country has been pressured into sending troops to Iraq by the United States, Han said.

And tension between the United States and North Korea over the nuclear issue put South Korea in the middle, the professor said. Offering a final explanation, he said that nationwide candlelight vigils and protests last year fostered a negative image of the U.S. military.

Han said the survey surprised him because a similar poll seven months ago found an opposite result.

“I understand the current trend pretty well,” he said, “but I don’t know if it’s strong enough to be reversed from North Korea to the United States” that quickly.

On the street, the split opinions were echoed.

“I agree with the survey result,” said Hong Song-sam, a 22-year-old college student waiting to meet friends for lunch in Seoul on Wednesday. “The United States is the most threatening country to South Korea.” The U.S. “confrontation with North Korea has worsened recently, and South Korea could also be a victim of it.”

At the same time, Hong said, he thinks U.S. troops in South Korea are necessary to provide for the country’s defense.

Lee Chae-suk, a 58-year-old pharmacy owner in Seoul, said North Korea was the biggest danger.

“I can’t believe it. The United States is our ally. How could it be more threatening?” North Korea “has a totally different ideology from us,” she said. “North Korea has always been very provocative. I think some instigators are working actively out there to cause more trouble in this society.”

U.S. soldiers reacted with amazement when told the survey results.

“You’re kidding, right? The country with all the soldiers here to protect South Korea is a bigger threat than the country we’re helping protect them from?” asked Pfc. Alex Cardozza, a 2nd Infantry Division soldier visiting Yongsan Garrison on Wednesday. “That’s kind of surprising.”

Another soldier wondered whether day-to-day concerns overshadow the bigger picture.

“I think if you’re personally affected by it, if you’ve already got something other than a good opinion of the U.S., you might forget how long we’ve been here and why,” said Sgt. Trey Nelson, assigned to Yongsan Garrison. “How much do people separate what goes on in Washington and what goes on here on a daily basis?”

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