North Korea’s Threat and the Possibility of War
In a poll fielded between August 9-15, Quinnipiac found that 79% of voters think North Korea poses a threat to the United States (48% an “immediate” threat), while 20% do not. This was echoed by a mid-September Washington Post survey, which found that 83% of adults think the Kim Jong Un regime poses a threat to the US (70% a “serious” threat) and only 14% do not. The gap between the proportion of respondents who described the DPRK’s threat as “immediate” and “serious” in these two surveys may reflect both differences in people’s understandings of these two adjectives and increased anxiety over escalating tensions. (Quinnipiac; Washington Post)
Pollsters also found a high level of public concern over the possibility of an actual war. Two August polls—one by YouGov (Aug 13-15) and one by Fox News (Aug 27-29)—reached very similar conclusions on this question. YouGov found that 60% of adults are worried (24% very worried) that North Korea will attack the US in the next six months while 30% are not; Fox News found that 59% of voters are “concerned [22% extremely concerned] about a war with North Korea” while 39% are not. (YouGov; Fox News)
In September, YouGov (Sept. 24-26) found that 79% of adults are concerned (40% very concerned) about a “full-scale war” between the US and North Korea (21% are not concerned) while Morning Consult (Sept 22-24) found 82% of voters are very or somewhat concerned “for US allies in the region, such as Japan and South Korea” (9% are not concerned). (YouGov; Morning Consult)
Summary: A large majority of Americans are concerned about the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program and the possibility of war. However, as we reported in our August polling update, this does not represent a significant increase in public anxiety relative to the prior few months. This suggests that the level of concern may have reached a ceiling, barring major new developments such as an actual military confrontation.
Approximately three quarters of Americans support a diplomatic approach to the crisis with North Korea. Average results from two mid-August NPR/PBS NewsHour polls that asked respondents to choose one of several policy approaches suggest that 74.5% support engaging in diplomatic negotiations, either directly with Pyongyang or through China. This aligns with two Morning Consult studies (Aug 10-14 and Sep 7-11), which found an average 78.5% support (57% strong support) for “continuing diplomatic efforts…”
Additionally, a Quinnipiac survey (Aug 17-22) found that an even higher proportion (86%) of voters support “the United States and its allies negotiating a deal with North Korea” and YouGov (Aug 13-15) found that 68% of adults support “direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea,” with 38% strongly supporting. (NPR/PBS NewsHour; NPR/PBS NewsHour; Morning Consult; Morning Consult; Quinnipiac; YouGov)
While support for diplomatic talks was slightly higher among Democrats (74% support, 45% strongly) than Republicans (70% support, 38% strongly) in the YouGov study, Morning Consult and Quinnipiac found no partisan split.
Yet despite broad support for negotiations, enthusiasm for a diplomatic solution drops dramatically when respondents are presented with specific concessions the US might need to make in exchange for Pyongyang relinquishing its nuclear program. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll (Sep 18-21), a majority of Americans (61-32%) opposes “offering North Korea financial incentives such as aid money, or more trade” and a plurality (47-43%) opposes “the U.S. agreeing to stop conducting U.S. military exercises with South Korea” to try to get “North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.” (Washington Post)
And, while most Americans support diplomacy, a significant proportion are skeptical about the prospect of resolving the crisis through non-military means. A Quinnipiac survey from mid-August found that 60% of voters think “the US will be able to resolve the situation with North Korea diplomatically” and 30% think the US will “need to use military force” In early September, Gallup found that 50% of adults think “the situation involving North Korea can be successfully resolved using only economic and diplomatic efforts” while 45% do not. (Quinnipiac; Gallup)
Summary: There is strong bi-partisan support for a diplomatic resolution to the US conflict with North Korea, at least 68% and possibly as high as 80%. However, support drops significantly when Americans are presented with specific concessions the US may need to make as part of negotiations and a significant minority are skeptical that the conflict can be resolved through non-military means.
Americans are much more divided when it comes to military options. YouGov’s mid-August poll found that a slight plurality of adults (43-39%) support “the United States taking military action against North Korea in order to end that country’s nuclear program,” a proportion that jumped to 49-33% in YouGov’s late September survey. Out of respondents who favored military action in these two studies, an average 65% would support it “even if it could lead to war with China.” (YouGov; YouGov)
When framed against diplomacy or economic pressure, support for military action drops significantly. The two mid-August NPR/PBS NewsHour surveys found that, if obliged to choose one of several approaches, combined support for three military options (air strikes, ground troops, and launching a nuclear-first strike) adds up to only 16-17%, with three quarters (74.5%) preferring diplomatic efforts. In the same vein, Morning Consult (Sep 22-24) found that 56% of voters believe “the US should take an approach more based on economic pressure” than military action (22%) and Survey Monkey (Oct 10-17) found 64% think “the US should mostly use diplomacy” and not military action (32%).
Yet both CBS (Aug14-16) and Gallup (Sep 6-10) found that 58% of respondents would support military action if diplomatic approaches failed, while an average of 36.5% would still oppose it. (NPR/PBS NewsHour; NPR/PBS NewsHour; Morning Consult; CBS; Gallup; Survey Monkey)
Airstrikes, ground troops, and pre-emptive strikes
Pollsters asked about a range of specific military interventions. As mentioned above, two mid- August NPR/PBS NewsHour surveys found only 16-17% combined support for three forms of military action: about 10% support using “air strikes to knock out nuclear facilities”; about 3% support launching “a first strike nuclear attack”; and about 3% think the US should “send troops to overthrow the government [of North Korea].” (NPR/PBS NewsHour; NPR/PBS NewsHour)
However, the Washington Post (Sep 18-21) found that 39% of adults would support “the US bombing North Korean military targets” while 54% would oppose it, and IPSOS found both support and opposition to “targeted first strikes…even if it potentially results in thousands of deaths” at 41% (18% don’t know). (Washington Post)
Morning Consult (Sep 7-11) found that 50% of voters support (28% strongly support) targeted airstrikes and 35% support sending in American ground troops to “take control of the country” (17% strongly support). Morning Consult has been consistent in finding above-average support for military intervention in North Korea; this may be due to their weighting or the make-up of their online panel. (Morning Consult)
Public support is much lower for a pre-emptive or first-strike intervention. In its mid-August poll, YouGov (Aug 13-15) found a 50-24% plurality opposes “a conventional military strike against North Korea BEFORE they might attack the United States or an ally…” (25% are not sure) and a 63-14% majority would oppose a nuclear first strike (22% are not sure).
Likewise, the Washington Post (Sep 18-21) found that a 67-23% majority say “the US should attack only if North Korea attacks first” and 69% think a US first strike would risk starting a larger war in East Asia. Lastly, IPSOS (Sep 11-12) found that 68% of adults (40% strongly) agree that “the US should never be the first to use nuclear weapons” while 23% (7% strongly) disagree. (YouGov; Washington Post; IPSOS)
Unlike diplomatic options, there is wide partisan division on military interventions across all polls. For instance, Morning Consult (Sep 7-11) found a 33-point gap between Democrats and Republicans on air strikes (38 vs. 71%) and a 27-point gap on ground troops (26 vs. 53%). YouGov (Aug 13-15) found the biggest spread on taking military action: 38 points between Democrats and Republicans (35 vs. 73%). IPSOS (Sep 11-12) found a 30% gap on support for “targeted first strikes…” (30 vs. 60%) and CBS (Aug14-16) found a 37-point gap on taking military action if we’re not able to resolve the crisis through diplomacy (43 vs. 80%). In all polls, self-identified Independents fell in the middle between Democrats and Republicans, but generally leaned closer to the Democrats. (Washington Post; YouGov; IPSOS; CBS)
As we have written in previous polling analyses, most questions about military intervention in North Korea have an implied-success bias, which probably inflates support. And, pollsters virtually never question the assumption that the United States—the country with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world and the only one that has used it against civilian populations—has the legitimacy or authority to decide and enforce which states can and cannot develop nuclear weapons.
Summary: There isn’t as much appetite for military intervention as for diplomacy with North Korea, and no consensus. It’s likely that between 40 and 50% of Americans would support a conventional military strike of some kind, fewer would support a first strike, and very few (perhaps 10%) would support a nuclear first strike. Democrats and Republicans are very far apart on military approaches to North Korea, with Republicans largely supporting and Democrats largely opposing.
The Commander in Chief
During September, four major surveys asked respondents about their confidence in Donald Trump’s ability to handle the crisis with North Korea (or to do so responsibly)—Morning Consult (Sep 7-11and and Sep 22-24), Washington Post (Sep 18-21), and IPSOS (Sep 11-12). Average findings show that the public is closely divided. 45% have some confidence (23% a lot of or a great deal of confidence) in the President’s abilities while 49% are skeptical (including 35% who have no confidence at all). (Morning Consult; Morning Consult; Washington Post; IPSOS)
On the other hand, a new NBC/Survey Monkey poll (Oct 13-17) found that a 64-40% majority of adults disapproves “of the way Donald Trump is handling the situation with North Korea”, with 42% strongly disapproving. This is a higher disapproval-approval gap than that what was reported by YouGov (50-38%) and Fox News (50-43%) in the month of August. (Survey Monkey; YouGov; Fox News)
It is possible that as tensions continue to build and the administration seems unable to de-escalate or resolve the crisis, public disapproval has increased. But to assess if this is happening and, if so, to what extent, more polling with a variety of question-wordings and methodologies is needed (we also caution that approval of/trust elected officials’ handling of particular issues is highly influenced by respondents’ general attitudes towards the leader in question and tends to function as a proxy for their overall favorability).
Americans are also divided over the appropriateness of the President’s rhetoric towards the towards the Kim Jong Un regime. Morning Consult (Aug 10-14) and YouGov (Aug 13-15) found that a plurality (46-39% in the former and 44-34% in the latter) thinks Donald Trump’s fire and fury comment (“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States… they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”) was appropriate. While plurality support for such overtly bellicose rhetoric may be surprising, respondents are likely influenced by strong negative emotions conjured by the prospect of North Korea making “more threats to the United States” as anxiety over it's nuclear weapons program remains high.
On the other hand, CBS (Aug14-16) found that 59% of adults believe “the United States should not threaten military action against North Korea, as a way of trying to settle the situation” and YouGov (Sep 24-26) found that a 48-36% plurality think Trump’s “totally destroy” comment ("The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime") was inappropriate. (Morning Consult; YouGov; CBS; YouGov)