May 6, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

Though Diplomacy is Still Favored in Dealing with North Korea, American Support for Using US Troops to Defend South Korea Hits All-time High

By Gregory Holyk, Research Analyst at Langer Research, and Dina Smeltz, Senior Fellow, The Chicago Council  

If Kim Jong-un was trying to get our attention, he’s certainly succeeded.

An April 12-15 Chicago Council survey (fielded before the Boston Marathon attacks) suggests that the provocative threats from Pyongyang have had some effect on American attitudes. The number of Americans who support defending South Korea from an attack from North Korea is at an all-time high of 46 percent (similar to 45% in 2006) in 10 surveys going back 23 years. But vastly more continue to support diplomatic rather than military solutions to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

In the wake of significant saber rattling on the part North Korea, including military exercises and threats of retaliation, Americans are closely divided on whether to put American lives on the line in helping our ally South Korea, with more opposing (50%) than in favor (46%). This is in sharp contrast from just last year when opponents outnumbered supporters by 15 percentage points.

It’s especially noteworthy that while there have been slight shifts in support for using US troops to defend North Korea in the event of an invasion, support for sending U.S. troops to other hotspots has now dropped to all-time lows in Chicago Council surveys. Only 22 percent now support using US military forces to defend Taiwan if it was invaded by China, a new low in surveys dating back to 1998 (76% now oppose, the highest reported opposition during the same time period). And fewer (44%) than in previous surveys support using US military forces to come to Israel’s defense if it were attacked by its neighbors; by contrast, in 2010 and 2012, opinion essentially divided evenly.

As in past surveys, a solid majority of Americans – by nearly 2-1 – favor defending South Korea from an attack from the north if the US were “contributing military forces, together with other countries, to a UN sponsored effort to reverse the aggression.” This reading is identical to one year ago.

Following North Korea’s displays of intentions to revive its nuclear weapons program, more than eight in 10 continue to support diplomatic efforts to pressure North Korea to discontinue its nuclear program, while 66 percent (up from 60% in 2012) think the U.S. should “stop and search North Korean ships for nuclear materials and arms.”

Military options engender far less enthusiasm, though slightly greater minorities now support action. Fifty-two percent oppose US air strikes against military targets and suspected nuclear sites; 43 percent favor them, up 6 points from 2012. Three-quarters say they’re against sending US troops “to take control of the country” (though support is up a slight 4 points from last year).

These results dovetail with findings from a recent New York Times/CBS April 24-28 poll showing seven in 10 Americans think the threat from North Korea can be contained for now, though the Chicago Council results also show an increase in willingness to step up the pressure on Kim Jong-un.

As is typical of questions on the use of force, partisanship plays a role, with Republicans more willing to act unilaterally than Democrats. While six in 10 Republicans favor sending US troops if North Korea attacks South Korea, a nearly identical 59 percent of Democrats oppose doing so. Independents, for their part, are equally split. (These same partisan splits also are apparent in support for aiding Israel, but not in the case of a hypothetical Chinese attack on Taiwan.)

However, if the effort to aid South Korea is a multilateral one through the United Nations, partisan differences disappear (with support between 68 and 70 percent). While Republican support rises 10 points when the UN is involved, support jumps by 27 and 19 points among Democrats and independents, respectively.

On specific approaches to persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions, partisanship isn’t much of a factor, with diplomacy far preferred over military options across partisan lines.

Taking a broad view, it’s interesting that somewhat more Americans are now willing – even if still only minorities – to use force against North Korea now than in 2012, while support for using military options in other volatile situations has declined. This likely highlights the role of the media in covering North Korean nuclear tests and rhetoric coming from Pyongyang, with more Americans paying attention to this news story.

Indeed, a Washington Post blog post on April 11th  reported that American internet users were searching for information about North Korea with “astounding, unprecedented frequency.” Additionally, a CNN/ORC poll (April 5-7) found an increase in the percentage who consider North Korea an immediate threat to the United States (41%, up from 28% in March 2013). That said, the public still clearly favors a more diplomatic approach. So far, the Obama administration has taken a cautious tack, choosing not to take the bait publicly. But if these provocations persist and the American public continues to take note, the pressure on the administration to respond may increase.

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.

Archive





On his Europe trip, Trump will be crossing into hostile territory

Donald Trump kicked off his second official foreign tour today in Warsaw, Poland, giving a speech condemning Russian aggression amid a crowd enthusiastic about its government’s show of friendship with the US leader. For Trump, this first stop will likely be the easy part.


#TBT 1974: #NOTNixonian

Is the US public turning on President Donald Trump like it turned on former President Richard Nixon? Running Numbers is digging out its archived polls to look back at Nixon’s approval ratings compared to those of Trump to see whether US public opinion is following a similar path.



Heading into Brexit talks, Britain is as divided as ever

On the heels of the shocking General Election outcome, the UK-EU Brexit negotiations have begun. But the road ahead for these talks is far from smooth: recent polling indicates that the public is increasingly split on what exactly would qualify as an acceptable deal.



| By Craig Kafura

UK General Election 2017: Parliament and Polls Hung Out to Dry

As the results of the United Kingdom’s snap election filtered in last Friday, most headlines echoed shock: Theresa May and her Conservative Party had lost the large majority in Parliament that seemed almost guaranteed just a few weeks ago. What drove this shocking shift? Did anyone see it coming?


Trump’s Paris Pullout: Not Popular with US Public

President Trump recently announced that he plans on pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, a decision that is out of step with the views of the public. According to a number of surveys conducted over the past year, a majority of Americans support US participation in the agreement.


| By Dina Smeltz

The Urban-Rural Divide?

Are Americans as divided along geographic lines when it comes to key foreign policy matters as their voting patterns suggest? 


| By Karl Friedhoff

Moon Jae-In's Victory Does Not Put US-Korea Alliance at Risk

With the election of Moon Jae-In to the presidency of South Korea, there are concerns that the US-Korea alliance hangs in the balance. Those fears are overblown. While there are rough waters ahead, much of that will emanate from the Trump administration's handling of cost-sharing negotiations in the near future.


| By Dina Smeltz

The Foreign Policy Blob Is Bigger Than You Think

The Blob isn't just science fiction. When it comes to US foreign policy, its reach is far and wide with wide swaths of agreement between foreign policy elite and the general public. A new report from the Council and the Texas National Security Network explains.


| By Dina Smeltz

American Views of Israel Reveal Partisan and Generational Divides

Despite partisan differences on taking a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the status of US-Israel bilateral relations, overall trends from Chicago Council Survey data indicate that the relationship between the United States and Israel will continue to be viewed warmly by the American public.