In the aftermath of his meeting with Kim Jong Un, President Trump declared that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat. Americans have a more measured view, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. But their impressions of what happened in Singapore are nonetheless more positive than pre-summit attitudes earlier in the spring.
The president and the North Korean dictator signed a statement that commits to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which is the goal of the United States in negotiations that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week he hopes will be concluded before the end of Trump’s first term in the White House.
The summit agreement lacked specificity in terms of that timetable or more critically the outline of the verification program North Korea is prepared to accept. Nor does the document speak to what could be gaps in how each side defines complete denuclearization. Still, the document and the optics were enough for Trump to put his own stamp of interpretation on the history-making meeting, calling the summit a full success.
Americans aren’t ready to agree, according to the Post-ABC poll. A majority of 55 percent says it is too early to tell whether the summit was a success for the United States and an almost identical majority (56 percent) says it was too early to tell whether it was a success for North Korea.
About 1 in 5 (21 percent) say it was a success for the United States, and nearly 3 in 10 (29 percent) say it was a success for North Korea. And 16 percent say it was not a success for the United States, and a mere 5 percent say it wasn’t a success for the North Koreans. The net positive margin on what the summit means for North Korea extends across partisan lines.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted Wednesday through Friday among a random national sample of 495 adults reached on landlines and cellphones. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5.5 percentage points.
Trump drew some criticism after the summit for appearing to make concessions without getting much in return. Among the concessions was a decision to halt joint military exercises with South Korea, long a staple of the relationship between the two countries. Trump also used language often employed by North Korea to describe those exercises, calling them “provocative” and “war games.”
Beyond that, because this was the first meeting between a sitting president and the leader of North Korea, the summit was seen as a public relations coup for Kim, who was elevated onto an international stage and who, despite having a brutal human rights record at home, was treated to smiles and words of praise by Trump during the summit and afterward.
The survey found the public gives Trump the benefit of the doubt, narrowly, on how to interpret the give-and-take of the summit. Just over 4 in 10 (41 percent) say Trump made reasonable compromises at the summit, while about a third (34 percent) say he gave away too much to the North Korean leader. The other 25 percent offered no judgment about the bargaining that took place.
Partisan leanings colored these perceptions. Seven in 10 Republicans say the president made reasonable compromises compared with 11 percent who say he gave away too much. In contrast, almost half of all Democrats (49 percent) say he gave away too much, compared with 17 percent who say he made reasonable compromises. Independents are evenly split, 39 percent to 39 percent, on the question.
In the early months of Trump’s presidency, North Korea’s multiple missile tests and saber-rattling rhetoric from the president — he warned that Kim’s regime would be subjected to “fire and fury” if it used nuclear weapons — heightened tensions dramatically. In September, a Post-ABC poll showed a record high 70 percent said North Korea posed a serious threat, with majorities doubting Kim and Trump would act responsibly. Notwithstanding Trump’s post-summit assurances that the threat is gone, the public is taking a wait-and-see approach to the future.
The new poll finds about 4 in 10 (42 percent) say the summit makes the long-term possibility of war with North Korea less likely, while 39 percent say it makes no difference. A modest 11 percent say they think it makes the long-term chances of war more likely. Once again, Republicans express far more optimism about this than do Democrats or independents, with about two-thirds of those who identify with the GOP saying they think the chances of war have been diminished.
The summit did result in a shift in attitudes on the question of whether North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. In April, 30 percent of Americans said it was likely that there would be an agreement leading to that outcome, while 67 percent said it was unlikely. In the new Post-ABC survey, 41 percent now say they think it is likely as a result of the summit, while 53 percent say it is unlikely.
The skeptics about North Korea’s eventual willingness to give up its nuclear program have softened somewhat in their view of what could happen. Of the 53 percent who say it’s unlikely Kim’s regime will give up those weapons, 27 percent say it is “somewhat” unlikely — about the same as earlier. But the number of those who say it is “very” unlikely has dropped from 42 percent in April to 25 percent today.
Scott Clement, The Post’s polling director, noted that the overall rise in optimism is “almost entirely attributable to Republicans.” Slightly more than 2 in 3 Republicans (68 percent) now say it is likely that North Korea will dismantle its nuclear program completely, an increase of 29 percentage points since April. Independents have changed little since April, with 34 percent saying today they think it’s likely, while Democrats have barely budged from 21 percent in April to 26 percent today, although Democrats have become far less apt to say disarmament is “very unlikely.”
On this question, the results showed a sharp difference between men and women. A slight majority of men (51 percent) say they believe the summit made it likely North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons, compared with just a third (32 percent) of women. The percentage of men who express an optimistic view has risen by 20 points since April. Among women, the increase in that period is three points, which is within the margin of error.
A gender gap appeared on other questions as well. On the issue of whether the president made reasonable compromises or gave away too much, men and women took opposing positions. Among men, 55 percent say Trump made reasonable compromises, while 28 percent say he gave away too much. Women were more pessimistic, with 27 percent saying the compromises were reasonable and 40 percent saying he gave too much to Kim.
By 50-33 percent, men are more apt than women to say the summit made the long-term chances of war with North Korea less likely. Twice as many men as women (28 percent vs. 14 percent) judged the summit a success for the United States, and more men than women say the same for North Korea. Overall, small majorities of men and women agreed that it is too early to judge the outcome.
Trump’s characterization of events can have some impact on shaping perceptions, but the survey indicates that many Americans will reserve judgment to await the results of the coming negotiations.
Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.