American attitudes toward North Korea



Americans care about nuclear weapons, like working with allies, and self-identified Independents are more dovish than either Republicans or Democrats.  These are among the main takeaways from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs report on American attitudes toward foreign policy. Sixty-three percent of those polled consider the possibility of unfriendly countries becoming nuclear powers a critical threat to the United States. In this light, it is not surprising North Korea figures prominently in the American public’s concerns.

In the case of North Korea, in keeping with the high importance Americans place on halting nuclear weapons proliferation, preventing North Korea from building its nuclear capability ranks first as the biggest security concern in Asia, more important than any rivalry with China. An overwhelming majority of Americans support continuing diplomatic efforts to get North Korea to suspend its nuclear program (82%). Americans say the United States should be ready to hold talks with the leaders of North Korea (69%) (similar to the numbers for Cuba (73%) and Iran (67%)), with majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all supporting talking to the government of North Korea.

A substantial majority of Americans (60%) also favor of stopping and searching North Korean ships for nuclear materials or arms. However, a majority opposes air strikes against military targets and suspected nuclear sites (58%). Republicans are more supportive of airstrikes (47% vs. 33% of Democrats and 34% of Independents), though even in this case, a plurality of Republicans are opposed (49%). An overwhelming majority (80%) also opposes sending in U.S. ground troops to take control of North Korea. Regrettably, in their escalating response ladder, the Council did not ask its respondents about economic sanctions.

Concern about North Korea is the number one issue in terms of America’s relations with both Japan and South Korea. On a question in which respondents were presented six possible strategic priorities in American relationships with Japan and South Korea, “preventing North Korea from building its nuclear capability” came out highest of the six possible priorities for both countries. Trying to bring about regime change in North Korea, however, is a much lower priority, with only 17 percent considering it a “very high” priority in America’s relationship with either Japan or South Korea.

Concern over North Korea is also reflected in continuing majority support for U.S. military bases in South Korea—considerably higher than for any other country on which respondents were polled.

And what happens if the North Koreans attack South Korea? How questions are framed matters: as in past Chicago Council Surveys, in response to questions that imply unilateral rather than multilateral action, a majority opposes using U.S. troops to defend South Korea if North Korea invaded (56%). A slight majority of Republicans (51%) would support such an action; intriguingly, self-identified independents (36%) were more dovish than Democrats (40%). However, if this question is rephrased in terms of a multilateral effort under the banner of the United Nations, a majority (64%) supports using American troops, with the political breakdown yielding majorities of Democrats (64%), Republicans (70%), and Independents (60%).

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