While news from Charlottesville, Virginia, has dominated media coverage in recent days, it was only a short while ago that Americans were Googling the projected trajectory of intercontinental missiles launched from North Korea and fretting about the prospect of war. In late July, North Korea tested a missile that experts believe is capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States, and in August it was reported that the country had also figured out how to miniaturize nuclear weapons to fit on these missiles. In unscripted remarks at an event on the domestic opioid crisis, President Trump said, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Americans have long perceived North Korea as a threat, but more acutely so in the last few weeks, according to recent polling. That renews the relevance of questions about the prudence of military action, the public’s tolerance for a looming specter of nuclear conflict, and Trump’s ability to lead effectively in a moment of crisis.
Recent events have left Americans demonstrably shaken. A CNN poll shows that in March of this year, 48 percent of Americans saw North Korea as a “very serious threat” to the U.S., but by early August, that number had reached 62 percent. That puts North Korea on par with the threat posed by ISIS in American minds: 64 percent of those asked in the same August poll viewed the terrorist organization as a very serious threat.1
Right now, North Korea worries Americans more than Iran does; 33 percent said Iran was a very serious threat. This is a change from September of 2015, when 49 percent of people saw Iran as a very serious threat and 37 percent said the same about North Korea.
But Americans have long feared the North Korean regime. Back in 2003, the year North Korea pulled out of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, a Gallup poll found that 60 percent of people in the U.S. thought the Kim regime’s weapons capabilities were a “major problem.”
The rhetoric Trump used to talk about North Korea might be exacerbating Americans’ worries. Threatening “fire and fury” against a nuclear-armed, anti-American dictatorship is apt to keep some people up at night, particularly when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he would consider an attack on Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific.
A recent Marist University poll, conducted in the days following Trump and Kim’s comments, found that only 19 percent of Americans have a “great deal of confidence” in the president’s ability to lead the nation in an international crisis, and 76 percent preferred the U.S. pursue non-military options. In the past few days, an Economist/YouGov poll found that 68 percent of people favored negotiations with North Korea to end its nuclear program, though 52 percent of respondents thought Trump wasn’t just talking tough and actually meant to attack the dictatorship.
But what happens if diplomacy doesn’t work? Americans remain nervous about the likelihood of a nuclear strike by North Korea. While an August CBS poll found that most people — 68 percent — think North Korea is just posturing and isn’t actually planning a strike, a July poll from Bloomberg found that 55 percent think there’s a realistic chance that North Korea could launch a nuclear attack in the next several years. For historical context, in 1982, a Los Angeles Times poll showed that 63 percent of Americans thought that the Russians would be willing to start a nuclear war. Americans might have felt the chill of the Cold War creeping back into their collective consciousness this month.
When asked how the U.S. should approach efforts to end tensions with international adversaries over the nuclear issue, Americans have tended to favor nonproliferation agreements, though the negotiations with Iran during the Obama era were more controversial with the public; a Gallup poll from February 2016 found that 57 percent of people disapproved of that agreement.
That might be in part be because Americans rarely seem to trust an adversary to uphold their end of a bargain. Eighty percent of respondents to a 2015 Fox News poll said that Iran couldn’t be trusted to keep its promises in the nuclear deal. Going back to 2002, a Time/CNN poll found that 47 percent of Americans thought Russia would live up to its end of a potential nonproliferation agreement, but 41 percent thought it wouldn’t. In 1963, at the height of U.S.-USSR tensions, only 19 percent of people thought the Soviets would live up to the terms of a test-ban treaty.
Should the U.S. enter into some kind of negotiations with North Korea in the future, it seems likely that a pattern of public distrust would continue. For now, what will carry on are tensions and an international standoff.