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Americans view US-Korea alliance differently

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By Troy Stangarone

After the turbulence of the Trump administration it should be no surprise that the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in August reawakened questions about the United States' willingness to support and defend its partners and allies. While the immediacy of those concerns has passed, there are good reasons to believe that the United States views its commitment to South Korea very differently than Afghanistan.

After more than seven decades, the security, economic, and people-to-people ties between the United States and South Korea are deeper than they were in the case of Afghanistan.

The security ties between the United States and South Korea are based on the mutual defense treaty and seven decades of security cooperation on and off the Korean Peninsula. While the United States supported the government in Afghanistan, its commitment was not of the same as its commitment to South Korea.

The United States and South Korea also share a robust and growing economic relationship. Despite the pandemic, the two countries did an estimated $154.9 million in trade and goods and services in 2020. The United States remains South Korea's second largest trading partner, while South Korea is the United States' sixth most important trading partner.

Prior to the pandemic, Afghanistan was only the United States' 105th largest trading partner. U.S. exports of goods only amounted to $758 million. In contrast, U.S. exports to South Korea in 2019 were more than $56 billion.

People-to-people ties are also helpful to support the relationship. There are nearly 2 million Korean Americans in the United States, while South Korean government data indicates that more than 156,000 Americans lived in South Korea in 2019.

These ties are buttressed by tourism and education. Prior to the pandemic, the United States was the fourth largest source of tourists in South Korea. According to the Korea Tourism Organization, roughly 1 million Americans visited South Korea in 2019. U.S. data suggests nearly 2.3 million South Koreans visited the United States that same year.

Education also helps to bring the two countries together. While only a small portion of the foreign students in South Korea come from the United States, South Koreans are the third largest source of international students at U.S. universities, and the second largest on a per capita basis according the International Education Institute.

In time, people-to-people ties with the United States and Afghanistan might have flourished, but South Korea's ties to the United States are significantly more robust. The depth of the relationship is also evident in U.S. attitudes towards South Korea. The Korea Economic Institute recently released a survey of U.S. attitudes towards the Korean Peninsula. The survey was held from August 30th until September 7th, just after the last U.S. troops had departed Afghanistan.

It found that Americans have a favorable view of South Korea. 65 percent have either very favorable or favorable views. Only 9 percent of Americans have a negative or very negative view of South Korea.

These favorable views extend to the alliance and the economic relationship. A strong majority of Americans believe that the alliance is in the national security interest of the United States. Despite growing partisanship in Washington, U.S. views of the alliance aren't a partisan issue. 64 percent of Americans are supportive of the alliance, with similar numbers of Republicans and Democrats viewing it as in the interest of the United States.

We see similar results for the economic relationship. 63 percent of Americans view the economic relationship as beneficial to the United States. Here as well there is essentially no difference between the views of Republicans and Democrats.

The challenges of Afghanistan are unlikely to change these perceptions. We asked Americans whether the situation in Afghanistan was likely to influence their views of U.S. security commitments abroad and 35 percent said it would have no impact on their views of U.S. security commitments, while 22 percent said it was make them more likely to be supportive of those commitments. Only 14 percent said they thought the situation in Afghanistan would make them less likely to support U.S. security commitments abroad.

The American public hasn't supported the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in the same way. A Pew Research Poll released as the last U.S. troops departed Afghanistan suggested that 54 percent of Americans supported the decision to withdraw U.S. troops. Polling by Gallup going back to the beginning of the Afghan War suggests that Democrats and Independents have consistently been much more skeptical of the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan than Republicans.

The consensus that we see on U.S. views of South Korea never existed on Afghanistan. None of this suggests that the U.S.-Korea alliance will not face challenges in the years ahead, but it does illustrate that the American public views the U.S. presence in South Korea much differently than it did the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.


Troy Stangarone (ts@keia.org) is the senior director of congressional affairs and trade at the Korea Economic Institute.




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