By Juni Kim
Despite being only February, 2017 has already had an eventful new year. Japan recalled its ambassador from South Korea over the ongoing “comfort women” controversy, the South Korean field of presidential candidates is starting to take shape, and the new Trump administration has signaled potential shifts in the status quo of U.S. bilateral relationships. All of these developments amount to a great deal of uncertainty over key relationships in Northeast Asia, and the coming months should prove to be interesting, to put it mildly.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in association with other policy institutes worldwide, recently released a new study examining public opinions in America and Northeast Asia. Although the surveys in the study were conducted before the U.S. presidential election and the South Korean presidential impeachment, they provide a snapshot into global public opinions that will likely be affected by the significant events of the past few months.
With the Trump administration signaling the stabilization of U.S.-Russian relations and the fallout from President Trump’s contentious phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, it will be worth watching how American public opinion regarding both bilateral relationships may change in future polls. The Russian relationship had previously been seen by Americans as souring, with a majority of survey respondents believing that U.S.-Russian relations were worsening in 2016, while only a scant 5% of Americans thought so of U.S.-Australian relations. Unlike these two divergent examples, the new administration has made efforts to reassure South Korea of the strength of the U.S.-South Korean relationship, with President Trump even calling the relationship “ironclad” on a phone call with acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn.
The importance of U.S.-South Korean relations is underscored by similar threat perceptions of North Korea. The overwhelming majority of both the U.S. and South Korean public believe the North Korean threat is either critical or important. The U.S. presidential transition and the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye have not prevented the administrations of both nations from understanding this threat. It was no mistake South Korea and Japan were the first overseas destinations selected for newly confirmed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, which indicated that both Asian allies remain vitally important to U.S. security interests. Both the U.S. and South Korea would be wise to continue to signal to North Korea the continuing strength of the relationship and deter any potential provocations.
Still, North Korea may decide to throw a wrench into an already uncertain global situation for its own political purposes. The recent events of Iran’s missile test and the ensuing announcement by the Trump administration to put Iran “on notice” are undoubtedly being closely watched by the North Korean regime. Their calculus on when to conduct provocations will likely be affected by the severity of the U.S.’s response. Even with the uncertainty present in both the U.S. and South Korea, North Korea remains a highly volatile wild card that could test the new presidencies at any time. Regardless of how North Korea acts, both the general public of America and South Korea are likely to continue to place high priority on North Korea’s weapons programs.
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 Dickson Phua’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.