American Attitudes Toward North Korea Update



Today the George W. Bush Institute’s Human Freedom initiative released Light Through the Darkness, a policy agenda authored by Bush Institute Fellow in Human Freedom (and former Bush Administration NSC staffer) Victor Cha, together with three accompanying reports: one based on interviews with North Korean refugees living in the US and two based on surveys of US public opinion. Today I take a look at the public opinion polls; the refugee interviews and policy agenda will be addressed in subsequent posts.

The public opinion polls make interesting, if slightly bewildering, reading. The polls were conducted in July-August 2014 and October 2014. (For methodological details see the original source linked above.) The first poll begins by asking respondents about their fundamental views on human rights. Nearly all respondents (95%) support the universality of the principle of human rights, agreeing that everyone, regardless of where they live, should enjoy the same protections. But when it comes to actualizing those rights, the majority shrinks: 72% believe the US has the obligation to investigate and possibly act on abuses, but most (63%) do not support freedom unconditionally. Rather they appear to think that each situation should be evaluated on its merits. And when it comes to tactics for promoting freedom, the respondents reveal apparently contradictory views with majorities supporting economic sanctions (84%), military action (60%), and doing nothing on the grounds that the US cannot be the world’s policeman (54%).

Majorities believe that all countries should take in refugees fleeing war or violence (75%), a repressive government (71%), and extreme poverty (58%), and that countries should be held accountable for not honoring their international obligations to refugees (75%). Calling Beijing.

When it comes to North Korea, the results are hard to assess because the public appears to have little knowledge of the Korean peninsula, and when comparing the results of the two polls, those views sometimes shift, and it appears that the reports themselves contain mistakes. Take, for example, the first question, “When you think of North Korea what is the first thing that comes to mind?” In the write-up of the July-August survey, human rights/prison camps is the most frequently cited image (19%), followed by leaders/dictators (11%), and dangerous/bad place (10%). However, in the October report, the August results are rendered leaders/dictators (19%), communist country (11%),and Korean War (10%). The October results are reported as leaders/dictators (25%), communist country (11%), and a tie between human rights/prison camps and Korean War at 9%.

Yet when asked in the initial survey what kind of government North Korea has, 48% thought it was a dictatorship, 27% thought it was communist, and 4% thought it was a monarchy. Too bad they didn’t offer an “all of the above” option. Whatever the details, it appears safe to say that North Korea has “high negatives” among the American public. (Weirdly, knowledge of South Korea was even sketchier, with only 41% in the August poll identifying it as a democracy. However, when the range of choices was simplified in the October poll, a narrow majority of 51% ID’ed South Korea as a democracy.)

It’s hard to know what to make of the results on the specifics: knowledge of the prison camps seems to bounce around, rising from 40% to 53% in the two polls. But that rise is unlikely to be due to the Commission of Inquiry: only 15% of respondents in the first poll, and 13% in the second had ever heard of it. Similarly, 70% of respondents had not heard of the famine. Yet a majority—52%--said that they had heard of North Korean women being trafficked. If these results accurately render the American public's knowledge of North Korea, I wonder through what channels these respondents are getting the information that informs these views.

So, the American public vaguely knows that North Korea is a bad place, and in the October poll a majority (58%) expresses the view that North Korea is a threat to the US. What is to be done? A majority (55%) believe the UN should take the lead; only 9% think that the US should play that role. (And if China and Russia block action via the UN a majority (51%) believes the US should take action "together with other countries." And if the US gets involved (43% would oppose involvement) what should the US focus on? The slight majority that supports action is nearly equally divided between those who want to emphasize human rights (27%) and those who want to focus on North Korean aggression (24%). In the October poll, 80% believe that improved relations with the US should be conditional on North Korean improvements in its human rights practices. Majorities support educating North Koreans about democracy and human rights (80%), assisting victims of human trafficking (72%), assisting refugees in escaping (69%), and helping transmit uncensored news and information into North Korea (57%). Thank you, RFA.

In the end it is hard to disentangle the public’s somewhat ill-informed, ambivalent, and apparently contradictory views; issues of survey design; and perhaps simple typos in the reports. One comes away with the unsurprising impressions that the American people don’t think highly of the government of North Korea, want to see change in multiple dimensions, but would prefer to work cooperatively through the UN or other multilateral arrangements rather than go it alone. Maybe Washington does reflect the country at large.


There was indeed a typo in the report, and Lindsay Lloyd of the Bush Institute passed along these corrected figures for the July-August survey in regard to the fourth paragraph above

Leader(s)/Dictator(s)/Kim 19
Communist Country 11
Korean War 10
Dangerous / bad place to be / trouble / fear* 7
Nuclear power/security issues/missiles 7
Human rights/prison camps/Shin Dong-hyuk 5
Military/War (Not Korean)* 4
Famine/hunger/poverty 3
Oppression* 3
Repressive Country* 3
Crazy* 1
Dennis Rodman 1
Isolation* 1
Sad / anger / disgust / disbelief* 1
Other (Specify) 7
Nothing 5
Don’t Know 10
Refused 2

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