What do the American People Think about a War with North Korea?

December 14, 2017

There are numerous reports that some officials in the Trump administration are considering a preventive strike to attempt to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capability.  There are also convincing analyses that such a strike would be both costly in human lives and unlikely to succeed.

What do the American people think?

My own research shows that, from 1993 until 2013, about 45% of the public favored military action of some kind as a response to North Korean nuclear activity.  More recent surveys by several organizations demonstrate a) that the public strongly prefers continued diplomatic efforts over military action, and b) support for a preventive military strike is very low (about 25 percent). Support for an unspecified “military action” (CBS News) was 58 percent in August 2017.

More recently (August-September 2017), I conducted a survey of 1000 Americans and asked two questions, the first dealing with air strikes against North Korea to damage or destroy nuclear sites, the second dealing with “sending ground troops” for the same purpose (the survey was conducted in collaboration with the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University).  Neither question mentioned possible casualties (a point I return to below).

The results below show several things (click image to enlarge).  First, supports for airstrikes is fairly high –62 percent overall, with majority support among Independents and Republicans. However, support for sending ground troops is much lower –only 42 percent overall, with only Republicans showing slim majority support.



An interesting question is how these percentages compare to levels of support for the most recent preventive war undertaken by the United States –in Iraq in 2003.  Richard Stoll and I have reported comparable figures for the Iraq war. Before the invasion of Iraq, 67 percent of Americans (in 103 individual surveys) favored an unspecified “military action” against Iraq (compared to the 58 percent for North Korea mentioned above).  Support for sending ground troops to Iraq without mention of casualties was 56 percent –higher than the 42 percent for North Korea in this 2017 survey—but when casualties in Iraq where mentioned alongside “ground troops,” support dropped to 39 percent. It seems likely that support for sending ground troops to North Korea (beyond those already there) would also be lower were casualties mentioned in the question. Similarly, casualties suffered by troops already stationed there would likely elicit similar levels of disapproval.

In summary, support for military action –including ground troops—against North Korea is lower today than it was in the run up to the Iraq War.  And we now know that support for the Iraq War fell continuously as casualties increased. Since casualties in a war with North Korea are likely to be much higher by an order of magnitude, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a war with North Korea is likely to further damage the political standing of a president who is already historically unpopular.




A note on survey methodology

The questions on North Korea were included in our broader Tufts survey on the role of gender equality in US foreign policy. The survey was conducted online by YouGov during the period Aug 31, 2017 through September 15, 2017. YouGov administered the survey online to 1,799 respondents who were then matched down to a sample of 1,000 general population respondents and 500 respondents age 18-30 to produce the final dataset. The respondents were matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, race, education, party identification, ideology, and political interest.

We also collected an oversample of 500 respondents age 18-30. We will describe the results from this youth sample in future reports.

Margin of error: +/- 3.65%.

Survey mode: Web-based interviews

Full results of the survey are here.