Some Americans may rest easier on news that North Korea and U.S. negotiators have struck a deal for the United States to provide food aid in exchange for the North halting its uranium enrichment program, a key facet of its nuclear weapons operation. But many Americans may be skeptical: North Korea is deeply unpopular, widely seen as a threat to national security and not very trustworthy.
More than eight in 10 Americans expressed unfavorable views of North Korea in a February Gallup poll, including 54 percent who held strongly unfavorable views. A similar 49 percent called the nation an outright “enemy” in a 2011 CNN/ORC poll — tying Iran. That’s about double or more the number who called any other country in the survey an enemy (including Syria, Pakistan and China).
Americans’ worries over North Korea even outpace concern among foreign policy experts. Nearly seven in 10 Americans said that the Kim Jong Il regime posed a “major threat” to national security in a 2009 Pew Research Center poll, much higher than the proportion of Council of Foreign Relations members who expressed that view in a parallel survey.
And more than seven in 10 Americans said in a 2009 CNN poll that they believed North Korea was capable of launching a missile that could hit the United States. Respondents were also nearly unanimous in saying that if Pyongyang attempted such a feat, they would support military retaliation. At the time, North Korea still had a ways to go before being able to launch a nuclear warhead across the Pacific, and it has said it will halt long-range missile launches under the new agreement.
Hypothetical scenarios aside, Americans have signaled little appetite for a military invasion. Even after Pyongyang announced it had built nuclear weapons for self-defense purposes, 78 percent of Americans in a 2005 Washington Post-ABC News poll opposed a military invasion. A similar percentage opposed bombing military targets to force the nation to part with its weapons. The public split on whether to offer financial incentives, such as aid money or trade, to encourage North Korea to halt its nuclear program.
That attitude seems to persist today. Late last year, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents to a CBS News poll said that the North Korean threat could be contained without using force. Only 16 percent said that the threat requires immediate military action.
But Americans may be dubious about the likelihood of success for the latest agreement with Pyongyang. Two-thirds of voters in a 2006 Fox News poll said the United States shouldn’t trust any agreements with North Korea. That number may be a bit higher than the reality, as the survey reminded respondents about North Korea’s recent missile tests.
Even so, the public has reason to be doubtful. The two nations struck an agreement when Kim Jong Il took control of the country in 1994 — the last time North Korea had a change in leadership. Under that deal, the North promises to stop the nuclear program in exchange for $5 billion in nuclear fuel and reactors (for conventional uses). Suffice to say, it didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
Is there any confidence in diplomacy? Many appear optimistic. Six in 10 people responding to a 2006 CNN poll said that diplomatic and economic efforts alone could successfully resolve the situation, and even more of those polled in a 2003 Washington Post-ABC survey thought diplomacy and negotiation had at least “some chance” of solving the North Korea problem. If Americans fail to see a fast-growing danger, the public may continue to be patient with diplomacy.
Americans seem be taking the long-view approach to North Korea’s nuclear threat: Step up diplomatic efforts to halt the nuclear program, but don’t declare war unless attacked first.
Foreign policy Wednesdays: Most Wednesdays we will feature a special poll watcher analysis of American public opinion on foreign policy. The series will be cross-posted at Foreign Policy Magazine’s Election 2012 page.