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International relations

Majority of Americans against cutting US forces in South Korea: poll

Public opinion ahead of election diverges from Trump's talk of troop reductions

An F-16 Fighting Falcon from the 80th Fighter Squadron at Kunsan Air Base takes off during exercises with South Korean forces. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

NEW YORK -- More than six in 10 Americans see the military alliance with South Korea as beneficial to the U.S., with over half wanting to maintain or increase forces there, a new survey shows.

The report by the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute of America, or KEI, also says only 37% of Americans approve of U.S. President Donald Trump's handling of relations with South Korea, with 22% disapproving and 41% unsure.

The findings come as the U.S. inches closer to a presidential election that could shape Washington's relations with the Korean Peninsula for the next four years.

Trump has talked of pulling troops out of South Korea if Seoul does not pay billions of dollars more to Washington for hosting costs, according to news reports and his own former national security adviser, John Bolton.

Nearly half, or 49%, of respondents want the U.S. to keep its current level of troops in South Korea, while 7% favor an increase. Only 19% said they want to see the U.S. reduce or withdraw troops from the Korean Peninsula.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, left, shakes hands with Jeong Kyeong-doo, then South Korea's minister of national defense, in a Feb. 24 news conference at the Pentagon.   © Reuters

In his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, the Republican president spoke of "proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first." His Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, vows on his campaign website to "strengthen our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and other Asian democracies."

The survey, conducted by YouGov, was taken from Aug. 26 to Aug. 31, drawing 1,064 respondents.

On North Korea, only 31% of respondents approve of the Trump administration's approach. This breaks down to 9% of Democrats and 66% of Republicans.

"I don't think it's necessarily that the president chose to meet with Kim Jong Un," said Troy Stangarone, senior director and fellow at KEI.

"It's probably more the way he discusses Kim Jong Un" -- Trump has called him a friend and has said they fell in love with each other -- that "starts to, even on Republicans, perhaps ... weaken a little bit of that support," Stangarone said in a KEI webinar Thursday.

Democratic respondents are generally more likely to desire cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea, according to the survey.

And while just 27% Americans are aware of the free trade agreement with South Korea, 65% believe that engaging in trade with the country benefits the U.S. Overall, 66% of Americans have favorable views of South Korea, while 62% see the military alliance as beneficial.

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