By Phil Eskeland
Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released its annual survey of America’s global image around the world. What is fascinating about this report is that while the opinion of America, and in particular President Donald Trump, has remained relatively the same or declined among most countries of the world, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has been one of the few exceptions to this trend.
The most dramatic change has been the favorability rating of President Trump in South Korea. In 2017, only 17 percent of South Koreans had confidence in President Trump to do the right thing in world affairs. By 2018, his favorability rating dramatically jumped to 44 percent, representing a 159 percent increase. No other country in Pew’s survey revealed such significant increase. This may be explained by President Trump’s positive response to engage directly in talks with North Korean (DPRK) leader Kim Jong-un on denuclearization and offering a new path forward towards a permanent peace and better relations with the DPRK. The only other nation that saw a sharp change in their opinion of President Trump was Russia, but it was in the opposite direction, going down from a 53 percent positive rating in 2017 to just 19 percent in 2018. Regardless, there is still only a minority of South Koreans who expressed have confidence in President Trump. However, President Trump’s favorability rating in South Korea is still higher than what President George W. Bush experienced in the 2000’s, ranging from a high of 36 percent in 2003 to a low of 22 percent in 2007.
While a majority in many countries still look favorably upon the United States, the numbers for many nations, particularly in Europe, declined. However, for South Korea, America’s favorability rating increased from 75 percent in 2017 to 80 percent in 2018, to reach the third highest among all nations surveyed by Pew. This level of support for America was similar to previous Pew surveys conducted during Barack Obama’s presidency and much higher than during the Bush presidency.
The Pew report also revealed that while positive public opinion of America increased in the ROK, South Korean views of China and of Chinese President Xi Jinping have deteriorated. This may be partially explained by the tiff over the deployment in South Korea of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to defend against the North Korean missile threat when China initiated a series of unofficial boycotts against South Korean products and services that negatively affected the South Korean economy. In addition, China’s actions to assert itself in various sea and air territorial disputes with its neighbors, along with reaffirming support for North Korea after several years of strained relations may have also contributed to a falling negative perception of the PRC and its leader among South Koreans.
One other interesting question from the Pew Survey attempts to measure whether or not the U.S. takes into account the interest of other countries in the formulation of its international policy. Most citizens in other countries disagree that America does so, including South Korea. In Asia, the Pew survey only found citizens in the Philippines answering this question affirmatively more than a majority of the time. For South Korea, at no time in previous surveys did most of South Koreans believe the U.S. took their country’s interest into account, even when President Barack Obama was in office. However, the most recent trend shows opinions on this question in South Korea returning to the time when President George W. Bush was in office despite President Trump’s effort to engage in direct talks with North Korea. Perhaps this is a result of a few decisions President Trump has made that did not appear to take South Korea’s concerns to heart, such as the imposition of higher U.S. tariffs on certain Korean-made products, repeated threats to pull out of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), and suspending large-scale joint U.S.-ROK military exercises. Perhaps this is a result of an uneasy feeling among some South Koreans that the U.S. primarily cares about defanging the nuclear and international continental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat from North Korea and not about other aspects important to inter-Korean dialogue that are of equal importance to South Korea. President Trump’s rhetoric on America First may have also influenced public opinion in South Korea to conclude that America will look only after its self-interest and the concerns of other nations are of secondary importance.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to observe in the Pew survey that while confidence for President Trump dramatically increased among South Koreans, they still expressed skepticism that the U.S. would truly protect the interests of South Korea when making international policy. Perhaps it is natural that no one should expect that one country would prioritize another country in determining its national interest. However, the majority of citizens in some countries, such as the Philippines and Israel, believe the U.S. seriously takes their interests when deciding foreign policy matters.
The outcome of negotiations with North Korea will most likely determine whether or not the positive trend line of public opinion of America and its leader in South Korea will continue. If the U.S. and South Korea cooperate closely on reaching a new understanding and agreement with North Korea, not just on denuclearization but on the overall approach to engaging with North Korea, support for the U.S. and President Trump in South Korea should continue to grow. However, if U.S.-North Korea talks do not reach the aspirations anticipated by many South Koreans, then expect a reversal of this trend in next year’s Pew survey.
Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.