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Gallup World Poll: South Korea's Political Dilemma

by Cheoleon Lee
Senior Research Director, The Gallup Organization


Relations between the U.S. and North Korea have deteriorated since President George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil," along with pre-war Iraq and Iran in January of 2002. The tension between the U.S. and North Korea is mounting again with a series of recent developments, including North Korea's test firing of missiles as well as growing speculation that North Korea may be preparing to conduct its first underground nuclear test. The North Korean nuclear issue presents itself as the most serious threat to East Asia's short- and long-term security.

When it comes to North Korean nuclear issues, the Bush administration's position is to rely on sanctions until the communist regime gives up its nuclear capacity and other illicit activities. In contrast, under the slogan of a "Sunshine Policy," the South Korean government has been pursuing a more conciliatory strategy, insisting the only solution is to coax North Korea out of its isolation. Caught in the stand-off between North Korea and the United States, South Koreans seem to be in a precarious situation.

The United States may perceive South Korea's approach as a doomed policy of appeasement toward a rogue nation that poses threats to its neighbors. Conversely, South Koreans appear to view U.S. position as a dangerous and risky approach that may cause potentially disastrous consequences for the South and its neighboring countries. Reflecting these clearly opposing views between the U.S. and South Korean leaderships, the public sentiments of South Koreans appear to be split with regard to nuclear threats posed by North Korea.

How Serious is the North Korean Nuclear Threat?

According to the Gallup World Poll conducted in South Korea in June of 2006, less than half (43%) of Koreans feel seriously threatened by North Korea's claims of developing nuclear weapons. The indication that about 53% of South Koreans do not feel seriously threatened by North Korean nuclear weapons is striking in light of the fact that the same poll data show that the majority (69%) of the population also thinks North Korea already has nuclear weapons ready for use.

Obviously, most South Koreans seem to have accepted North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons as a fact. Yet, they tend to think that North Korea's intention is not to use them to attack the South. While they also seem to understand that the possibility of the nuclear weapons targeting the South cannot be excluded, South Koreans tend to perceive the purpose of the nuclear weapons, especially after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in terms of North Korea's attempt to ensure its own survival -- as well as in terms of a bargaining tool that can be used as a negotiating tactic.

South Koreans' differing perceptions of North Korea's nuclear weaponry are also apparent in their positions with regard to the solutions for the nuclear issues. According to the current poll, about 26% of South Koreans say the only solution to nuclear issues is strong economic and military sanctions against North Korea. This is a clear indication that the majority of South Koreans are against taking tougher approaches. Nevertheless, they seem to be equally divided over the issue of providing economic support to the North as a solution to nuclear issue. Fifty percent of South Koreans said economic support for North Korea could be the key to the nuclear issue.

A look at the issue of South Koreans' perceptions of U.S. troops in Korea helps provide context for such split sentiments, and also offers some insight about South Koreans' perceptions of the possibility of reunification with the North.

Withdrawing U.S. Troops From South Korea

Over the last five decades, the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea has been perceived as a "security blanket" for South Korea against the threats from the communist North. Indeed, the military alliance with the U.S. has provided South Korea the stability and security needed for the country to focus on economic development. Now, with the U.S. military stretched thin by the occupation of Iraq, the redeployment and reduction of U.S. troops in Korea is inevitable.

According to recent Gallup World Poll data, only about 26% of South Koreans say the U.S. should withdraw from Korea as soon as possible, while 71% say that U.S. troops should remain. For conservative South Koreans, any reduction in U.S. military presence in the Korean peninsula may pose a potential security vacuum, while others, especially more liberal younger generations, may perceive it as a step toward self-reliance. This generational difference is a notable finding: 56% of people between the ages of 15 and 19 are in favor of withdrawal of U.S. troops, while more than 80% of people aged 50 and older are opposed to the idea. When asked if South Korea can handle its national defense and security on its own, 27% of South Koreans said they can be on their own even if the U.S. withdraws. On the other hand, 66% said U.S. withdrawal would greatly impact the stability of the Northeast Asian region.

Clearly, the vast majority of South Koreans still perceive that the presence of U.S. troops in Korea is vital for its own national defense as well as for the security of the Northeast Asian region. Nevertheless, most South Koreans tend to believe firmly that the tougher approaches maintained by the Bush administration are not the solutions for North Korean nuclear issues.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,100 South Korean adults, aged 15 and older, conducted June 19-July 11, 2006. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.


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