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.


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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