Behind the Numbers

A Threat We Can Live With

Most Americans really don’t like North Korea, but few say it’s worth going to war to make them get rid of their nuclear weapons.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Some Americans may rest easier on news that North Korea and U.S. negotiators struck a deal to provide food aid in exchange for halting its uranium enrichment program, a key facet of its nuclear weapons operation. But many Americans may be skeptical: North Korea is deeply unpopular, widely seen as a threat to national security and not very trustworthy.

More than eight in ten Americans expressed unfavorable views of North Korea in a February Gallup poll, including 54 percent who held strongly unfavorable views. A similar 49 percent called the nation an outright "enemy" in a 2011 CNN/ORC poll — tying Iran. That’s about double or more the number who called any other country in the survey an enemy (including Syria, Pakistan, and China).

Americans’ worries over North Korea even outpace concern among foreign policy experts. Nearly seven in 10 Americans said that the Kim Jong Il regime posed a "major threat" to national security in a 2009 Pew Research Center poll, much higher than the proportion of Council of Foreign Relations members who said this in a parallel survey. 

And more than seven in 10 Americans in a 2009 CNN poll believed North Korea was capable of launching a missile that could hit the United States. If they attempted such a feat, the poll found the public almost unanimously supporting military retaliation. Pyongyang still had a ways to go before being able to launch a nuclear warhead across the Pacific, and has said that it will stop long-range missile launches under the new agreement.

Aside from hypothetical situations, Americans have signaled little appetite for a military invasion. Even after Pyongyang announced it had built nuclear weapons for self defense, 78 percent of Americans in a 2005 Washington Post-ABC News poll opposed a military invasion. A similar percentage opposed bombing military targets to force the nation to part with their weapons. The public split on whether to offer financial incentives, such as aid money or trade, to encourage North Korea to halt its nuclear program.

This attitude seems to persist today. Late last year, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents said that the North Korean threat could be contained without using force, according to a CBS News poll. Only 16 percent said that the threat requires immediate military action.

But Americans may be dubious of the success of the latest agreement with Pyongyang. Two-thirds of voters said the United States shouldn’t trust any agreements with North Korea in a 2006 Fox News poll. That number may be a bit higher than the reality, as the survey reminded respondents about North Korea’s recent missile tests.

Even so, the public has reason to be doubtful. The two nations struck an agreement when Kim Jong Il took control of the country in 1994, promising to stop the nuclear program in exchange for $5 billion in nuclear fuel and reactors (for conventional uses) last time North Korea had a change in leadership. Suffice to say, they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

Is there any confidence in diplomacy? Many are optimistic. Six in 10 people said that diplomatic and economic efforts alone could successfully resolve the situation in a 2006 CNN poll, and even more thought diplomacy and negotiation had at least "some chance" of solving the North Korea problem in a 2003 Washington Post-ABC survey. If Americans fail to see a fast-growing danger, the public may continue to be patient with diplomacy.

Americans seem be taking the long-view approach to North Korea’s nuclear threat: Step up diplomatic efforts to halt the nuclear program, but don’t declare war unless attacked first.

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