Analysis of poll released between May 20 and July 7, 2017
Given President Trump’s statement last week that threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” and the rhetorical escalation that continued all week, we felt a detailed look at polling on the North Korean military program would be timely. It is important to note, however, that all of these polls were completed prior to the President’s “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” remarks and the associated sharp increase in media attention. We expect that polls reflecting how the public reacted to the most recent crisis will be published shortly. We plan to analyze those in their own right and compare them to the findings described below—stay tuned.
The Top Line
Approximately three quarters (72-75%) of the public is “concerned” or “uneasy” about the possibility of a conflict or war between the US and North Korea. (ABC/Washington Post; CBS)
Large majorities of Americans oppose accepting that “North Korea will possess nuclear weapons in exchange for an agreement guaranteeing it will not produce additional nuclear weapons” (74%) or simply accepting North Korea as a nuclear power (85%). (Chicago Council on Global Affairs)
Several polls asked about the possibility of an actual war and found high levels of public anxiety.
A mid-July ABC/Washington Post poll found that three quarters (74%) of adults are very (39%) or somewhat (35%) concerned about “the possibility of the United States getting involved in a full-scale war with North Korea.” An early August CBS poll found that a similar proportion (72%) feel “uneasy about the possibility of conflict” with Pyongyang, while only 26% say they are “confident things will be resolved.” (Public Policy Polling;ABC/Washington Post; CBS)
Two pollsters asked respondents to assess whether North Korea could or will launch a nuclear missile at the US. In mid-July, Bloomberg found that 55% of adults think it’s “realistic” for North Korea to “launch a nuclear weapon aimed at the US.” In early August, CNN reported that 77% of Americans believe North Korea is “capable of launching a nuclear missile that would be able to hit the United States, including Hawaii.” (Bloomberg; CNN)
The August CBS poll also found that 60% of Americans think Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons “is a threat that can be contained,” while 29% say it “requires military action now.” (CBS)
North Korea: Threat
An ABC/Washington Post poll conducted in mid-July found that 81% of Americans think North Korea poses “a threat to the United States”—including 66% who consider this threat to be “serious.” An August CNN poll found that 94% of respondents think the Kim Jong Un regime is a threat—including 85% who think of it as “very” (62%) or “moderately” serious (23%).
Meanwhile, the annual Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey (conducted June 27–July 19) found that three quarters (75%) of adults see the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program as “critical,” while 23% say it is “important but not critical.” (ABC/Washington Post; CNN; Chicago Council on Global Affairs)
Overall, these findings represent a slight increase in public anxiety about North Korea’s nuclear program since the spring. In April and May, about 80% of Americans thought of the Kim Jong-Un regime as a threat; 60% considered this threat to be “serious” and 37% “immediate.” In July and August polling, an average of 91% of Americans think of North Korea as a threat; 68% considers the threat posed by the DPRK to be “serious,” “very serious,” or “critical.” Given the differences in wording between these polls, we can't be certain whether there has really been an 11-point increase in perceived threat, but anxiety does appear to be rising.
North Korea: Policy Options
Two polls find that Americans continue to favor diplomacy and sanctions over military intervention—something advocacy groups should emphasize to Members of Congress during Hill meetings.
A Morning Consult/Politico poll from mid-July found that 78% of the public supports continuing “diplomatic efforts to get North Korea to suspend its nuclear weapons program” and three quarters (75%) support additional sanctions against the regime and its leaders as well as against countries that trade with North Korea (72%). The 2017 Chicago Council survey found almost exactly the same level of support for imposing tighter sanctions on the regime (76%) and slightly lower for sanctions on Chinese companies doing business with North Korea (68%). (Morning Consult/Politico; Chicago Council on Global Affairs)
Both the Morning Consult/Politico and the Chicago Council surveys found minority support for sending ground troops—in the former, this type of intervention was supported by 33% of respondents and in the latter by 40%. However, the two polls reported conflicting levels of support for airstrikes on North Korea’s nuclear facilities: Chicago Council found majority opposition (55–40%) and Morning Consult/Politico plurality support (49–34%). In both polls, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to support either airstrikes or sending US ground troops. (Morning Consult/Politico; Chicago Council on Global Affairs)
North Korea: Acknowledgement and Acceptance
The Chicago Council survey found that three quarters (74%) of Americans oppose accepting that “North Korea will possess nuclear weapons in exchange for an agreement guaranteeing it will not produce additional nuclear weapons.” An even higher proportion (85%) oppose simply accepting that “North Korea will produce additional weapons.” (Chicago Council on Global Affairs)
This is only one poll, but it demonstrates a challenge for pro-peace messaging. Although Americans favor diplomacy over military intervention, the specifics of a diplomatic agreement (potential or actual) often bring that support down. We saw this same dichotomy in polling about the Iran Deal: great in theory, harder to swallow in reality. More broadly, this may reflect that Americans like the idea of negotiations and diplomacy, but may be less enthusiastic about the possibility of the United States making any concessions in the process.