By Kyle Ferrier
Claiming “Korea actually used to be a part of China” and stating “it would be appropriate” if South Korea paid for THAAD are just some of Donald Trump’s comments since his inauguration that have not been well received by the South Korean public. As President Moon Jae-in meets with President Trump this week to discuss new issues as well as longstanding ones such as the North Korea nuclear problem, his flexibility both in Washington and after his return to Seoul depends on public opinion at home. Against this backdrop, the release of two major survey-based reports in the past few days are rather fortunately timed and help to shed light on how South Koreans perceive U.S. political leadership.
The first is the Pew Research Center’s U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership: America still wins praise for its people, culture and civil liberties, released on June 26. The second is the Asan Institute’s A New Beginning for ROK-U.S. Relations: South Koreans’ View of the United States and Its Implications, released on June 27. While the Pew report looks at a broader scope of countries and the Asan report focuses solely on the South Korean public, both ultimately provide similar conclusions: South Koreans continue to view the U.S. favorably despite negative views on Trump. However, the two provide conflicting analyses as to whether Trump has already impacted U.S. favorability and how South Koreans view the future of relations with the U.S.
From polls conducted in 37 countries, the Pew study finds that international confidence in the U.S. president has dropped from 64 percent at the end of the Obama presidency to 22 percent at the beginning of Trump’s. South Koreans do not buck the trend. When asked if they have confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs, 88 percent of South Koreans responded positively during the end of the Obama years while only 17 percent expressed the same confidence in Trump — below the global median of 22 percent. Of the 37 countries polled, this 71 percentage point swing was the fourth largest, behind Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany. The 78 percent of South Koreans who definitively answered they had no confidence in Trump is the highest among the countries polled in Asia (the others are Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, and India) and is above the global median of 74 percent. Further, when asked about Trump’s major policy shifts, 78 percent disapproved of withdrawing from international climate change agreements and 80 percent disapproved of U.S. withdrawal of support for major trade agreements.
Asan presents complementary findings. It shows Trump’s favorability during the campaign was low: on their 0 to 10 ratings scale, where 0 is the least favorable and 10 is the most, Trump was below a 2 up through Election Day. This is similar to the favorability of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, not much higher than that of Kim Jong-un — who hovered around 1 — and dwarfed by Barack Obama — who consistently scored in the low to mid-6 range from at least the beginning of 2014 through 2016. Trump’s election boosted him from a 1.69 in November to a 3.25 in December and a 3.49 in January, but dropped to 2.93 in March before going up slightly to 2.96 in June. This jump in favorability since becoming president has given him a steady lead over Abe, but Trump remains below Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is punishing South Korea economically over the deployment of THAAD.
When asked only about the United States, Pew shows 75 percent of South Koreans view the U.S. favorably, above both the regional and global median. In addition, 86 percent view Americans favorably and 78 percent like American democratic values, both of which are also above the regional and global medians. Further, those on the political right are more inclined to have a favorable view of the U.S., with 86 percent of respondents who self-identified as politically right favoring the U.S. compared to 64 of those on the left.
The favorability rating of the U.S. in the Asan study largely follows the trend of the Obama years, remaining around a 6 out of 10. “This suggests that the United States’ favorability is not determined solely by the favorability of its leader and that American soft power has had a positive impact on South Korean public opinion,” the Asan report states. “It appears that South Koreans have learned to distinguish between the United States, the country, and Donald Trump, the individual.”
Both reports seem to indicate that American soft power has a positive influence on South Koreans, who view the U.S. and its president separately. However, the two present contradictory findings on how Trump has impacted perceptions of the U.S.
While Asan shows only a very minor dip in U.S. favorability since Trump’s election — a drop from 5.92 in November to 5.81 in June, which is termed as “relatively stable” favorability scores — Pew finds a larger drop. The 75 percent of South Koreans who viewed the U.S. favorably in 2017 is down from 84 percent in 2015, the last year Pew data is available, and is at its lowest level since 2008. Pew suggests this follows a larger global trend. Of the 37 countries polled, 30 showed a drop in favorable views of the U.S. in 2017. Other countries experienced a steeper fall though, as South Korea’s drop in positive views of the U.S. is tied for 23rd of the 30.
The two reports are also at odds on how South Koreans perceive relations with the U.S. moving forward. Only 8 percent of Pew respondents thought relations with the U.S. would get better, 45 percent thought they would stay about the same, and 43 percent stated they would get worse. In contrast, 67 percent of respondents in the Asan study thought relations with the U.S. would improve and only 20 percent thought relations would deteriorate.
There is clearly a wide gap between the sentiments expressed in both polls, but this is likely because of how the questions were worded. Pew framed their question around Donald Trump (“Now that Donald Trump is the U.S. president, over the next few years do you think that relations between our country and the U.S. will ___?”) and Asan framed theirs around Moon Jae-in (“ROK-U.S. Relations under President Moon Jae-in will___”.) Considering the negative views on Trump expressed in both polls and Moon Jae-In’s high domestic popularity, this disparity makes a certain amount of sense. Additionally, as no exact date is provided for when the Pew poll was conducted — the report only states spring 2017 — their findings may not reflect changes based on Moon’s election and thus may leave out any boost in confidence it might have engendered for relations with the U.S.
It may still be too early to definitively claim that Trump is impacting South Korean perceptions of the United States. But this does not mean Trump’s controversial statements, should they continue, will not influence how South Koreans view the U.S. in the future. If the outcome of the U.S.-ROK summit this week does not meet expectations or Trump makes controversial remarks in the future, South Korean public opinion of the U.S. could be pushed lower.
Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Images from Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.