Which country do South Koreans view as the most concerning national security threat? North Korea, the United States, or Japan? This is an important question to examine because it can determine where resources are allocated in threat prevention and diplomacy. Multiple national security threats are common, but they are rarely compared.

Since the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea has faced a clear threat from North Korea. In the final years of Kim Jong Il’s life, North Korea sank the South Korean submarine Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. More recently, a South Korean official with the Ministry of Maritime Affairs was shot and killed by North Korean soldiers near the border. While North Korea’s current regime is dangerous, it could be more dangerous if it collapses. A regime collapse would trigger a refugee crisis and an international scramble to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons; it could also trigger a territorial dispute with China.

Another potential national security threat would be the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. U.S. military presence has remained in South Korea since the end of the Korean War. The U.S. had not seriously considered withdrawing its troops until President Donald Trump threatened to do so in 2018. Trump recently asked Seoul to pay US$5 billion in cost sharing measures, up significantly from the US$900 million South Korea had agreed to last year.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

U.S. President Donald Trump

A recent survey has found that South Koreans are reluctant to shoulder the extra costs unless they serve a specified purpose. A withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea would leave the country isolated in the region, exposing it to a greater level of dangers presented by other geopolitical threats.

Japan’s desire to remilitarize is a potential threat to East Asia, an issue that many South Koreans hold close to heart. Japan was prohibited from maintaining a standing army by the U.S. drafted constitution after World War II. Japan’s recently resigned Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had clear ambitions to overturn the ban and build a Japanese military.

Many Koreans still remember the atrocities committed by the Japanese army from 1910 to 1945. South Korea’s efforts to seek compensation from Japan for Koreans who worked as forced laborers or sex slaves have damaged diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries. While it is unclear at this time what incoming Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will do regarding the reinstatement of armed forces, he is supported by Abe’s main coalition partners.

To better understand how South Koreans perspective these respective national security threats, I conducted a survey of 1200 South Koreans in conjunction with the WKU International Public Opinion Lab. The survey was administered by Macromill Embrain using quota sampling from September 9 to 18, 2020.

The text of our question is as follows: Please rank order the following potential national security threats, with 1 being the most concerning threat and 3 the least concerning threat.

  1. The U.S. military withdrawing from South Korea
  2. A re-militarized Japan
  3. A collapse of the North Korean regime.

All three threats are ranked very closely in terms of first-place votes. The threat of North Korea collapsing is only marginally ahead of a U.S. military withdrawal from South Korea. A majority of respondents who listed a U.S. military withdrawal as their top threat picked the collapse of North Korea as their second-ranked national security threat. A majority of respondents who listed the collapse of North Korea as their top threat picked the U.S. military withdrawal as their second-ranked national security threat. This indicates that the U.S. military is viewed as an important stabilizing presence against North Korea. The respondents may have ranked the U.S. troop withdrawal higher because of Trump’s repeated threats.

Nearly an equal number of respondents ranked a re-militarized Japan as the most imminent security threat, despite the long absence of a Japanese military and Shinzo Abe’s resignation before the survey was conducted. While our data showed that older people were more likely to consider a re-militarized Japan as the biggest national security threat for South Korea, 83.3% of the overall respondents expressed negative views of Japan. These findings are consistent with a 2019 public opinion poll, in which over three-quarters of South Koreans who held negative views of Japan said their animosity was due to Japan’s invasions of the Korean Peninsula during WWII.

Several demographic and attitudinal factors also influenced the survey results. Conservatives were more likely to say that a U.S. military withdrawal was the biggest national security threat, while Progressives leaned toward ranking “a re-militarized Japan” highest.

Perceptions of U.S. military presence in South Korea also affected their views. People who had positive opinions of U.S. military bases in South Korea were more fearful of the troops withdrawal . Others who thought of the U.S. troops negatively were likely to pick the other two answers as the greatest national security threat.

In the same survey, respondents were also asked what they thought relations with North Korea would be like in 10 to 15 years. People who were confident in improved inter-Korean relations thought of Japan as a greater threat than their bordering neighbor Moreover, people who thought that unification would occur in their lifetime were more likely to see Japan’s potential remilitarization as the most alarming.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his sister Kim Yo Jong attend a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Peace House at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018.

The survey results suggest a lack of consensus on national security priorities among the South Korean public. The Moon Jae-in administration is posed with intertwined challenges in maintaining regional stability, finding itself increasingly sandwiched between U.S. pressures and North Korea’s volatility. While foreign policy and security analysts have mainly focused on the impact of the U.S. and North Korea, these results show Japan is just as much of a public concern in South Korea. Continued hostility towards Japan undermines efforts that could be made by the United States to build broader alliances between Japan and South Korea. This would have significant implications if the U.S. was to withdraw its troops from South Korea.

If President Trump makes the reckless decision to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, South Korea should seek improved relations with Japan to avoid being isolated within the region. The current trade conflict is continuing to escalate despite the inauguration of a new Prime Minister in Japan. Initial communications between President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga suggest that they have different views on where the relationship between their two countries is. Holding a summit meeting to understand each other’s views and working out a trade agreement would make progress on reducing tensions between the two countries.

It’s possible that people responded to the question based on the current state of South Korean-Japanese relations, rather than any particular policy regarding re-militarization. There’s not enough data within the survey to know with certainty. Regardless, working towards a trade agreement would improve South Korean-Japanese relations and reduce the potential national security threat from Japan since countries do not usually attack their trading partners.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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