With Tensions Receding, Americans Lose Fear of North Korea

February 26, 2020

By: Karl Friedhoff, Marshall M. Bouton Fellow for Asia Studies

North Korea’s promise to deliver an end-of-year “Christmas gift” went unfulfilled amid signs that the United States wanted to continue diplomacy with the Kim regime. This has led to a continued lull in tensions between the two countries, although actual progress in negotiations remains elusive. With that lack of progress, President Donald Trump has reportedly told his advisers that he does not want another summit with Kim Jong Un before the US presidential election in November.

In a survey conducted from January 10–12, 2020, the American public is now less concerned about the threat posed by North Korea, but little else has changed in terms of Americans’ policy preferences to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program. Majorities still oppose airstrikes against North Korea and support long-term military bases in South Korea.

Key Findings

  • Half (52%) of the American public says North Korea’s nuclear program is a critical threat. That is the lowest mark since the question was first asked in 2015.
  • Just 26 percent say a confrontation between South and North Korea is a critical threat. This is also a new low.
  • One in ten (13%) cites North Korea as the country that poses the greatest threat to the United States. That is down from 59 percent in 2017.
  • A clear majority (69%) says the United States should maintain its long-term military bases in South Korea.
  • A majority (57%) oppose airstrikes against North Korea’s nuclear production facilities if no deal on denuclearization can be reached. Nearly seven in ten (67%) oppose sending US troops to destroy those nuclear production facilities.
     

Perceived Threat of North Korea’s Nuclear Program Reaches New Low

US-North Korea relations were largely quiet through the end of 2019. While there were several short-range missile launches—in violation of UN Security Council resolutions—these were dismissed as nonprovocative by the Trump administration, and the door to diplomacy remained open. Even though little progress was made on the diplomatic front, the prolonged absence of notable tensions seems to have led to a decreased sense that North Korea poses a threat to the United States.

In the most recent Chicago Council survey, 52 percent of Americans say North Korea’s nuclear program is a critical threat, the lowest mark since the question was first asked in 2015 (55%).[1] This number is down 23 percentage points from 2017—the height of “fire and fury”—when North Korea’s nuclear program was viewed as the most critical threat facing the United States. These results have been largely consistent between Democrats and Republicans over time, with few partisan gaps developing on this issue. Independents have consistently been the least likely to see the nuclear program as a critical threat, but attitudes among political affiliations have moved together.

At the same time, Americans are less concerned about the potential threat posed to the United States by a confrontation between South Korea and North Korea. In 2018, a majority of Americans (53%) said such a confrontation was a critical threat facing the United States—the first time a majority said so since the question was first asked in 2015. But now just 26 percent say such a confrontation is a critical threat, a new low. Again, perceptions among partisan affiliations largely move together.

Of course, the context of these declines is important. The survey took place just days after tensions with Iran spiked following the US assassination of Iran’s top military leader. Six in ten (61%) Americans say Iran’s nuclear program is a critical threat facing the United States. Moreover, a plurality (34%) now see Iran as the country that poses the greatest threat to US security versus 13 percent who say North Korea.

Stable Views on Military Bases in South Korea

Along with declines in the perceptions of potential threats to the United States emanating from Asia, fewer Americans now see Asia as the most important region for the security interests of the United States. In 2018, one-quarter (23%) said Asia was the region most important to security interests of the United States versus 50 percent who said the Middle East was and 19 percent who cited Europe. Now, one in ten (12%) says Asia is the most important versus 61 percent who say the Middle East is and 15 percent who cite Europe. These results were consistent among parties.

But the decline in Asia as a primary theater of concern and declining views of North Korea as a critical threat have done little to affect views on the benefits of alliances in East Asia. Half (48%) of Americans say alliances in the Asia-Pacific benefit both the United States and the allied countries equally. While that is down 5 percentage points from 2019, there is a corresponding increase in the view that such alliances primarily benefit the United States, growing from 7 percent in 2019 to 13 percent now. Overall, views of the benefits of alliances in the Asia-Pacific are steady.  Moreover, two-thirds of Americans (68%) continue to favor maintaining the current US military presence in the Asia-Pacific versus 11 percent who want it to increase and 18 percent who want it to decrease.

There has also been little change about views on long-term military bases in South Korea, specifically. Seven in ten (69%) Americans say the United States should have long-term military bases in South Korea. Republicans (80%) are more likely to say the United States should have bases in South Korea, but two-thirds of both Democrats (65%) and Independents (65%) agree, making this a difference in intensity rather than an outright partisan gap.

Policy on North Korea

The future of US policy toward North Korea is uncertain. While the United States has continued to call for diplomacy, a return of tensions between the two countries remains a likely outcome. Of course, there are no easy solutions to a nuclear North Korea, but the least acceptable option to the American public is that North Korea will produce additional nuclear weapons (80% oppose). The most-supported options are imposing tighter sanctions (73% support) and conducting cyberattacks against North Korean computer systems (60% support). Majorities continue to oppose the use of force against North Korea. Fifty-seven percent oppose airstrikes against North Korea’s nuclear facilities, and 67 percent oppose sending US troops to destroy those facilities.

Here, there are important partisan differences. Minorities among Democrats (29%) and Independents (36%) support conducting airstrikes against North Korea’s nuclear production facilities if no diplomatic solution can be reached. However, that number is 57 percent among Republicans. Yet this partisan gap does not carry over into sending US troops to destroy those facilities: only minorities of all parties support such action.

Overall, attitudes toward these options have remained relatively stable since 2015. However, there are two notable shifts. First, there is growing support for conducting cyberattacks against North Korean computer systems. In 2015, half (50%) of Americans supported such measures, and that number now stands at 60 percent. Second, and perhaps more importantly, there is growing support to accept that North Korea will possess nuclear weapons in exchange for an agreement guaranteeing it will not produce more of them. In 2017, support for this option stood at 21 percent, but it has grown to 33 percent. While 63 percent remain opposed to this outcome in 2020, this data point deserves to be closely monitored.

Diplomacy with North Korea has thus far yielded little, but the Trump administration has continued to call on the Kim regime to return to the negotiating table. If the two countries were able to reach an agreement in which North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons, the United States would likely need to make significant concessions. The American public is largely supportive of a range of concessions. Six in ten (62%) support providing humanitarian and economic aid, 81 percent favor establishing official diplomatic relations, and 60 percent support a partial withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. The only response option included in the question that a majority opposed was a complete withdrawal of US forces from South Korea. On this, 72 percent opposed such a concession, with only 24 percent in favor. (See appendix for full results.)


Methodology

The analysis in this report is based on data from a 2020 Chicago Council survey of the American public on foreign policy, a project of the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. This omnibus survey was conducted January 10–12, 2020, by Ipsos using its large-scale online research panel, KnowledgePanel, among a weighted national sample of 1,019 adults 18 or older living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is ±3. The margin of error is higher for partisan subgroups.

Partisan identification is based on respondents’ answer to a standard partisan self-identification question: “Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or what?”

About the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization that provides insight—and influences the public discourse—on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices, conduct independent research, and engage the public to explore ideas that will shape our global future. The Council is committed to bringing clarity and offering solutions to issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world. Learn more at thechicagocouncil.org and follow @ChicagoCouncil.


[1] For a full list of threats in the 2020 survey, see the appendix.

With Tensions Receding, Americans Lose Fear of North Korea

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