By Juni Kim
U.S. President Donald Trump will make his first visit in office to South Korea tomorrow as part of his trip to Asia, which comes at a crucial point in U.S.-Korea relations. The recent string of North Korean provocations, including a successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test in July and North Korea’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September, have raised concerns in the United States and internationally of the possibility of greater military conflict between the U.S. and North Korea. The state of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, commonly referred to as the KORUS FTA, is also in flux and President Trump has repeatedly voiced his desire to terminate the agreement, which has worried trade analysts in both the U.S. and South Korea.
With these concerns weighing over the U.S.-South Korea alliance, public confidence in the national leadership of both countries can play an important role in reassuring the strength of the relationship. However, South Koreans have expressed a substantial and historical lack of confidence in President Trump according to a Spring 2017 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center. Only 17 percent of South Korean respondents indicated that they had confidence in President Trump, which dramatically differs from South Korean public confidence in President Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. For the polled periods during his two terms in office, Obama never went below 75 percent and had as high as 88 percent of polled South Koreans showing confidence.
Surveys conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies yielded similar results. When asked to rate a leader’s favorability on a 0-10 scale (with 10 being the most favorable and 0 the least favorable), Trump scored a 2.96 among South Korean respondents in a June survey, which pales to Obama’s rating of 7.08 towards the end of his administration. Of interesting note, Trump actually enjoyed a stronger rating as president compared to when he was a candidate. Before last November’s U.S. presidential election, President Trump consistently had a rating under 2 on the scale before jumping to around 3 after the election.
Although the South Korean public also held less confidence in the previous Republican President George W. Bush, Trump’s favorability ratings are also significantly less than Bush’s numbers. According to Pew, South Korean poll respondents indicated confidence levels of Bush at 36 percent in 2003, 22 percent in 2007, and 30 percent in 2008. Even though Bush’s ratings are a fraction of Obama’s numbers, South Koreans at times expressed roughly twice as much confidence in Bush than Trump during the polled periods.
South Korean public opinion on U.S. presidents may have fluctuated wildly depending on who is in office, but South Koreans have been more consistent in their favorability to the United States itself. Pew poll numbers show a relatively steady increase in South Koreans expressing a favorable opinion of America from 2002, when President Bush made his controversially received “axis of evil” comments on North Korea, through both of Obama’s administrations. Although there is a slight dip this year at 75 percent favorability, a robust majority of South Koreans still view the United States favorably despite not holding President Trump in high esteem.
In light of China’s increasing assertiveness in regional affairs and North Korea’s advances in its weapons programs, this trend shows hope for the continued strength and importance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance to the South Korean public regardless of how they may view the current U.S. administration. The polling over the past decade and a half shows that the two measures do not always correlate. However, the current administration should be aware that a sustained negative opinion of the president may hurt how South Koreans think of the United States generally and diminish the largely positive perception the U.S. has enjoyed in South Korea over the past decade.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Jim Mattis’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.