SEOUL - South Koreans overwhelmingly oppose U.S. President Donald Trump's demand that Seoul pay more for the cost of the U.S. military presence, but remain broadly optimistic about the future of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, according to a new poll.
Ninety-six percent of South Koreans do not want Seoul to increase its share of the cost of the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, according to the survey published Wednesday by the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU).
Around three quarters of South Koreans support maintaining the status quo, while a quarter say South Korea should pay less, the poll suggested.
The U.S. and South Korea have engaged in two rounds of talks on the cost-sharing deal, which expires at the end of the year. Trump reportedly wants Seoul to pay more than five times the amount it contributes now.
The KINU poll is the latest evidence that a major increase would be politically unfeasible for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, according to analysts.
"It means big political costs for the Moon administration if they cave to U.S. pressure,” says Ben Engel, who researches U.S. policy in South Korea and works as a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.
Trump has for decades accused South Korea and other allies of taking advantage of the U.S. He regularly calls for Seoul to dramatically increase its share of the cost of U.S. troops.
According to a newly published memoir, Trump told his national security team in 2018 that it would be an “okay deal” if South Korea paid $60 billion a year. South Korea's military budget in 2018 was $43 billion.
South Korea in February agreed to pay $925 million to support the U.S. military presence this year — an 8 percent increase from the previous year. But the agreement covered only one year, rather than multiple years as in the past.
Despite rejecting Trump's cost-sharing demands, a broad majority of South Koreans (91%) say the U.S. military presence in South Korea is necessary, according to the poll. Even after a hypothetical reunification with North Korea, a majority of South Koreans (54%) would still welcome a U.S. troop presence, it suggested.
"While there was a concern about Korea's anti-American sentiment in the early 2000s. Now no prominent evidence of such a sentiment is found," the KINU report said.
South Korea had experienced mass anti-U.S. demonstrations. Protesters were upset about imports of U.S. beef and the death of two young girls who were hit by a U.S. military vehicle.
Some analysts have warned that Trump may once again inflame anti-U.S. sentiment. Although anti-Trump editorials are becoming more common in South Korean newspapers, instances of anti-U.S. sentiment remain scattered.
Last month, a group of left-wing protesters broke into the residential compound of the U.S. embassy in Seoul, protesting Trump’s cost-sharing demand. The protesters were fringe -- members of leftist student groups, some of which are pro-North Korea.
In 2015, a knife-wielding South Korean man with a history of militant Korean nationalism ambushed then-U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert outside a building in downtown Seoul. Lippert sustained cuts to his arm and face.
The U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea, a remnant of the 1950s era Korean War. The Pentagon says the troops are meant to deter North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Polls consistently show that South Koreans broadly support the alliance with the U.S., even while remaining skeptical of Donald Trump.
South Koreans gave Trump a 40 percent approval rating, according to the KINU survey — similar to the numbers for Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But direct criticism of Trump remains rare in South Korea. That’s in part because both sides of the South Korean political spectrum claim Trump as an ally — with liberals supporting Trump’s outreach to North Korea and conservatives generally supportive of closer U.S. relations, according to Lee Sang Sin, who headed up the KINU survey.
But Trump seems adamant about testing how far he can go. Earlier this year, Trump reportedly used an Asian accent to mock South Korea’s president over the cost-sharing issue. He also recently said a certain country, widely seen as South Korea, was "rich as hell and probably doesn't like us too much.”
South Korea rejects Trump’s notion that it doesn’t contribute enough toward the cost of the U.S. troops, insisting it pays almost half of the total cost of $2 billion. That doesn’t include the expense of rent-free land for U.S. military bases, Seoul says.