RAND Study Warns That South Koreans’ Long-Term Support for Alliance with U.S. Threatened By Differences Over North Korea

For Release

March 12, 2004

Continued differences between the United States and South Korea about how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear threat are hurting efforts to improve South Korean public attitudes toward America, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The report found South Koreans increasingly torn between the danger posed by North Korea’s nuclear threat and the possible promise of reconciliation and reunification with the North. South Koreans’ uncertainty is heightened by a growing belief that tough U.S. policies toward Pyongyang constitute a threat that rivals the one from the North.

In South Korea there is “a deep ambivalence about the presence of U.S. forces,” the report says. “On the one hand, most South Koreans have said that U.S. forces are important to their security, but on the other, they believe that the presence of U.S. forces may impede the pace of reunification or adversely affect other goals.”

The study involved the most exhaustive analysis yet conducted of public opinion data on South Korean attitudes toward the United States. It also included RAND’s participation in two September 2003 opinion polls with the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper of Seoul and the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies that interviewed a total of 1,710 South Koreans. One poll, with 1,000 respondents, had a margin of error of 3.1 percent, while the other, with 710 respondents, had a margin of error of 3.7 percent.

U.S. policymakers should not give up on South Korea or South Koreans, the study concludes. However, attitudes toward the United States are quite complex in spite of a recent downturn in favorable South Korean views of America, the report says.

The report recommends that to improve South Korean attitudes toward the United States, U.S. government officials should:

  • Explore opportunities for better intelligence sharing, consultations and other mechanisms to harmonize U.S.-South Korean views on threats and appropriate responses.
  • Do more to persuade South Koreans that American interest in their region goes well beyond the North Korean threat, and that the U.S. has a long-term interest in a peaceful, stable and economically vital Northeast Asia.
  • Develop a public diplomacy strategy that focuses on South Koreans’ legitimate grievances, while not attempting to change the views of those whose anti-Americanism is ideological.
  • Determine whether South Korea’s educational system constitutes a structural source of anti-American sentiment, and look to the role of the South Korean media in shaping attitudes. The report notes that, among young people (the so-called “democracy generation”), as many as 20 percent say they get their news from Internet sources, rather than from the traditional media.
  • While the study finds reason for “cautious optimism” about an upturn of South Korean support for the United States, it also points to longer-term challenges.

One of these challenges is the fact that sizable percentages of South Koreans with college educations and those in their 20s said in polls last year that they hold an unfavorable view of the United States and believe that America poses a greater threat to their country than North Korea. People with only a junior high school education and those older than 50 said exactly the opposite.

Since the number of college-educated South Koreans is growing and the group now older than 50 is shrinking, if current trends continue public attitudes toward the United States could worsen in the years ahead, the study warns.

A team from the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy led by Eric V. Larson wrote the report, titled Ambivalent Allies? A Study of South Korean Attitudes Toward the U.S. The work was supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation of Westport, Connecticut.

The RAND study team also included Norman D. Levin, Seonhae Baik, and Bogdan Savych. The team was given advice by a panel of eminent Korea specialists that included two former U.S. ambassadors to Seoul—Stephen Bosworth, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University; and Richard L. “Dixie” Walker, ambassador-in-residence at the Walker Institute of International Studies of the University of South Carolina.

The advisory group also included: noted Korea specialists Victor Cha, associate professor of government at Georgetown University; Robert Scalapino, Robson research professor of government emeritus at the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley; Doh C. Shin, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia; and Gi-Wook Shin, associate professor of sociology and senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies, Stanford University.

“RAND’s study is the most comprehensive assessment of South Korean public opinion on the U.S. that is available in the policy or academic literature,” Cha said.

Bosworth called the report “a thorough and balanced appraisal of South Koreans’ attitudes toward the United States, and U.S. policy actions that can make a difference in improving the overall tenor of the bilateral relationship. The recommendations are excellent.”

The report notes that a substantial downturn in sentiment toward America occurred after the February 2002 furor in South Korea when American short-track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno won an Olympic gold medal in Salt Lake City, when a South Korean skater was disqualified after he crossed the finish line first. Those holding favorable views of the U.S. fell to 34 percent, a nearly 33-point decline from the preceding July.

Then in November 2002, a U.S. military court cleared two American soldiers involved in an accident involving a U.S. military vehicle during training exercises that killed two South Korean schoolgirls. The national uproar included mass demonstrations and candlelight vigils. Again, those holding favorable views toward America fell to 37 percent in mid-December, a 16-point decline from the preceding August.

The RAND researchers found a partial recovery in favorable attitudes after the United States went to war with Iraq, however. The September 2003 JoongAng Ilbo-CSIS-RAND poll, for example, showed a slight rise in pro-U.S. sentiment to 50 percent, and only 27 percent favored a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.

Nevertheless, two out of three South Koreans characterized the relationship between South Korea and the U.S. as “pretty bad” or “very bad,” and 26 percent said they thought that the U.S. was the most threatening country to South Korea.

A printed copy of Ambivalent Allies? A Study of South Korean Attitudes Toward the U.S. (ISBN: 0-8330-3584-3) can be ordered online from RAND Distribution Services (phone toll-free in the United States: 1-877-584-8642; phone for all other areas: 1-310-451-7002).

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