February 13, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

Like Father, Like Son

Last summer the New York Times reported that some North Korea watchers wondered whether rising hem lines and heels among women on the streets of downtown Pyongyang signaled that Kim Jong-un would lead the country in a different style than his father, Kim Jong-il.  Well, this week we found out that in terms of his dealing with North Korea's pursuit of their nuclear weapons, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

It’s not yet clear whether it was successful or not, but the news broke Monday evening/Tuesday morning that Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test (following two attempts at long range missile tests last year).  Americans are fairly anxious about the threat of rogue nations developing nuclear weapons, and this certainly could heighten fears among those who worry about the nuclear ambitions of North Korea.  The Chicago Council’s June 2012 survey results found American’s consider North Korea’s nuclear capability the clearest threat in Asia, and more broadly, they consider preventing the spread of nuclear weapons as one of the top threats to US foreign policy goals.

When presented with six possible strategic priorities in our relationships with South Korea (and Japan), Americans rate preventing North Korea from building its nuclear capability as the top priority in both cases (see figure below).  Nearly half (48%) say this is a very high priority in the US relationship with South Korea (45% in relationship with Japan).  By comparison, trying to bring about regime change in North Korea is a less urgent goal (17% a very high priority).

At a broader level, a large majority of Americans believe that preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is a very important US foreign policy goal (72%), just below reducing US dependence on foreign oil (77%) and protecting jobs (83%).  The possibility of unfriendly countries becoming nuclear powers (63%) is also named one of the top threats to US vital interests.

Americans support continued diplomatic pressure on North Korea, but at least in June, they did not support taking  military action. Despite the failure of negotiations in the past, eight in ten supported continuing diplomatic efforts (82%), and in a separate question, seven in ten thought US government leaders should be ready to meet and talk with North Korean leaders (69%).  While a smaller majority supported stopping and searching North Korean ships for nuclear materials or arms (60%), there was only minority support for more coercive measures.    Majorities opposed air strikes against military targets and suspected nuclear sites (58% oppose, 37% support) and sending US ground troops to take control of the country (80% oppose, 15% support).

President Obama spoke to outgoing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak Tuesday morning to devise a common plan to take to the UN Security Council. The White House issued a statement that referred to the US “nuclear umbrella,” underscoring US defense commitments to South Korea. The threat of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is no doubt one of the driving factors in American support for a long-term US military presence in South Korea. Of all the bases asked about, Americans expressed the highest level of support for stationing US troops in South Korea, where solid majorities (60%-63%) have supported bases since 2004 (in comparison, half support basing in Japan).

For their part, the South Korean public is even more supportive than Americans of hosting US troops in their country (68% support), according to a late 2012 Asan Institute survey. And like Americans, in the bilateral relationship with the US, South Koreans also place greatest importance on preventing North Korea from building its nuclear capability (49% very high priority), followed by building a regional security alliance (39% very high).  They see a greater priority than Americans in trying to bring about regime change in North Korea (30%), ahead of limiting the rise of China’s power (21% very high) and building a regional free trade area with the US and East Asian countries (17% very high).

The Wall Street Journal reported today that the South Korean foreign ministry said that unless the US reopens negotiations ("open a phase of détente and stability") with North Korea, then North Korea will move toward a "do-or-die battle" and "great revolutionary event for national reunification."  If the threat escalates to a possible North Korean attack on South Korea, the Chicago Council survey showed that two in three (64%) Americans would support US troop involvement in a UN-sponsored effort to reverse North Korean aggression, though this support fell to 41 percent if it is worded as a unilateral US action.

In his essay about the US-ROK alliance based on Chicago Council results, Scott Snyder, a senior fellow and Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that the American public's “overwhelmingly negative response to using ground forces to pressure North Korea to denuclearize might well carry over to involvement of US ground forces” if North Korea were to become politically unstable.  If South Korea decided to intervene militarily to stabilize North Korea’s internal situation, Snyder writes that “American public reluctance to support such a military operation might become a potential source of friction in the U.S.-ROK alliance."

But let's hope it doesn't get to that.  Maybe it will help that South Korea is currently the chair of the UNSC.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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