American Public Opinion Is Remarkably Coolheaded on North Korea

A recent poll finds most support diplomacy with Pyongyang and oppose military action.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un visits a military unit on an island in the southwest of Pyongyang. (Reuters)

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs this week released the 2012 results of their biannual poll on American attitudes toward foreign policy. The report shows a rising American appreciation of the importance of Asia and a desire for a greater emphasis on nonmilitary forms of international engagement, including through diplomacy, alliances, and multilateral coalitions working together to solve international problems.

Within Asia, the greatest level of American support for a forward U.S. military presence is for the U.S. troop presence in South Korea perceived by two-thirds of Americans as a strong partner of the United States, with 60 percent of respondents favoring a continued U.S. presence there. Americans support the U.S. stabilizing role on the peninsula as a deterrent against North Korean aggression, but they also support continued diplomacy as the preferred option for dealing with North Korea's nuclear development efforts, and disfavored military-led efforts to pursue regime change in North Korea. While a majority of Americans supported interdiction of North Korean vessels that might be carrying North Korean cargo, most Americana opposed air strikes against North Korean suspected nuclear sites and 80 percent opposed use of U.S. ground troops in North Korea. Americans also strongly supported joining a UN action over unilateral efforts to defend South Korea against North Korean aggression. Americans perceive North Korea as the main security threat in Asia, while the U.S. pivot toward Asia receives modest support. My detailed analysis prepared for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs can be found here.

It is striking that a majority of Americans support further diplomatic efforts toward North Korea despite the apparent bipartisan fatigue with the results of diplomacy toward North Korea that permeates the Washington policy community. These survey results directly contradict North Korea's over-the-top characterization of America's hostile policy toward the North by offering hints of American support for North Korea's potential reform and denuclarization rather than the implacable hostility that North Korea perceives from Washington. But how can American policy better distinguish between its attitudes toward North Korea's nuclear weapons and North Korea's people, and can an American administration find a more effective balance of military and nonmilitary tools by which to counter North Korea's bristling and its paranoia? Whether or not such policy specialists believe that these views are naïve or effective in dealing with North Korea, this is the policy approach that Americans currently support.

This article also appears at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes regularly at Asia Unbound.

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