With Tensions Receding, Americans Lose Fear of North Korea

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: Tensions with North Korea largely subsided through the end of 2019. Though the United States and North Korea did not make any headway on the diplomatic front, the absence of provocation and conflict led many Americans to feel more optimistic about North Korea in the early days of 2020.

A recent Chicago Council survey found that just 52 percent of Americans think “North Korea’s nuclear program is a critical threat, the lowest mark since the question was first asked in 2015.” That’s a 23 percent drop from 2017, when tensions between the United States and North Korea were at a height.

Similarly, Americans are less concerned than ever that a conflict between North and South Korea would endanger the United States. Just 26 percent said such a conflict constituted a critical threat, down from 53 percent in 2018.

Among other things, the context in which these questions were asked could affect Americans’ threat perception. The Chicago Council survey was conducted just days after the United States assassinated Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani. The resulting tensions drove up America’s perception of the Iranian threat, which may have taken respondents’ attention away from North Korea. Thirty-four percent of Americans say Iran poses the greatest security threat to the United States, compared to just 13 percent who say the same about North Korea.

Along with this shifting threat perception, only 12 percent of Americans now say that Asia is the most important geographic area for U.S. interests, compared to 15 percent who say Europe and 61 percent who say the Middle East. In 2018, a quarter said Asia was the most important region, while 20 percent said Europe and 50 percent said the Middle East.

As a result, a smaller proportion of Americans “say alliances in the Asia-Pacific benefit both the United States and the allied countries equally,” compared to 2019. However, that shift is due to a growing number of Americans who see these alliances as primarily benefiting the United States. Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe the United States should maintain permanent military bases in South Korea, consistent with years past.

With regard to the future nearly three-quarters of Americans support imposing tighter sanctions on North Korea, while 60 percent support launching cyber-attacks against North Korean networks. Opposition to using force against North Korea remains high, with 57 percent opposing airstrikes on nuclear facilities and 67 percent opposing the deployment of U.S. troops.

While these attitudes have remained relatively stable since 2015, two shifts were notable. The first was an increase in support for cyber-attacks (up from 50 percent in 2015) while the second was acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Today, 33 percent of Americans are willing to accept these weapons so long as North Korea’s stockpile doesn’t increase, up from 21 percent who held this opinion in 2017.

Read the full study here.

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Chicago Council on Global Affairs