Members of Congress and the White House rely on surveys to gauge public sentiment on a wide range of policy options. So, if you only read the headlines covering the latest polling by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and YouGov, you may have come away with one disturbing insight: over a third of respondents in a representative sample of 3,000 would “approve” a US preventive strike against North Korea—after the president were to order one—across scenarios that vary by success rate, risk, retaliation and estimated fatalities.
The far more reassuring takeaway, of course, and one that our leaders should remember, is that the majority of respondents would first and foremost “prefer” that the US not launch a preventive war. When presented with a scenario that showed a preventive strike would only have a 50 percent expected chance of success, preference for such action fell to 23 percent. Unfortunately, these distinctions are obscured by such loaded conclusions as “a third of Americans think it would be a great idea to nuke Pyongyang.” Sensational headlines like “Americans are terrifyingly supportive of nuking civilians in North Korea,” misrepresent not only this survey’s findings, but also the wide differences across existing polling on the use of military action against the DPRK.
As the survey authors acknowledge, there are unavoidable limitations to polling, where the subtlest variations in language and context can produce vastly different responses. In the case of North Korea, this is especially true as respondents are highly susceptible to the timing of surveys in a constantly breaking news environment. As one South Korean public opinion survey by the Asan Institute showed, the likability of Kim Jong Un jumped to a record high 4.06 points in June 2018—following the Singapore Summit—when it had been hovering above 1 point since 2013. How might the Bulletin/YouGov results have changed if respondents were polled after the amicable June 30 meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un? Or at the height of the incendiary threats that Trump and Kim were trading in 2017?
It is a pretty safe assumption that if US-DPRK negotiations collapse and lead to a period of increased tensions and resumed North Korean testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the media will be full of headlines about how the two countries are on a path toward war. Thus, as key decision makers consider the options for living with a nuclear North Korea, it is of critical importance that surveys of American attitudes on questions of war and peace with the DPRK use techniques that will most accurately convey public opinion. It is equally important to recognize that, as noted sociologist Herbert Gans has observed, “polls are answers to questions rather than opinions.” Respondents are forced to give the narrowest of answers—for example, between approval and disapproval or preference and non-preference. When questions about North Korea are framed in such binary terms, the results tend to privilege the immediacy of military action and obscure the possibilities of diplomacy. In this context, what the Bulletin/YouGov poll reveals about present realities warrants greater scrutiny.
For starters, the survey gives some indication of how people typically assess threat. For most everyday Americans, threat perceptions are largely shaped by media consumption—and the media bears certain responsibility for misrepresenting the North Korean threat. In one recent example of how this occurs through pure misinformation, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell tweet-reported, “Kim Jong Un has not met the 1st commitment of the Singapore summit a year ago: disclosing inventory of his weapons so there could be a baseline for denuclearization talks,” which was later picked up by presidential candidate Julián Castro. The error is egregious not simply because Kim made no such commitment in Singapore, but because it creates an unrealistic expectation for a major concession that would be “tantamount to surrender,” according to noted nuclear weapons expert Dr. Siegfried Hecker.
Appropriately, the survey is designed around a fictional news article that discloses North Korea has developed a nuclear-capable missile that can reach the entire United States. The scenario parallels real events: In November 2017, the DPRK successfully tested its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, estimated to have a range of more than 8,100 miles on a standard trajectory. Whether it is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead remains uncertain. But at the time, the sense of urgency to deal with what hardliners were interpreting as an imminent threat had reached a new high, particularly as the former US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster had suggested that a nuclear-capable ICBM would constitute a red line for President Trump and was talking publicly about giving the DPRK a “bloody nose.” Moreover, McMaster and other hawks, in their public calls for such a strike, downplayed the risks of a significant North Korean escalation that would cause massive casualties—a view that many experts reject.
In the survey, the president is reviewing military strike options to deny North Korea that technical capability. (Different sub-groups were presented with either a conventional or nuclear strike option.) Partially mirroring reality, the crisis is premised on a threat assessment that conflates North Korean capability and intent. It presents the illusion of a false choice between attacking first or eventually being attacked. Ignoring North Korea’s possible motives for an attack, which would likely result in the destruction of the DPRK and the end of the Kim regime, the survey article concludes, “The Joint Chiefs did not recommend a course of action, but cautioned that military action against North Korea would likely be less effective in the future as the North continues to increase its nuclear arsenal and modernize its defenses.”
Without information to convey the wide range of existing diplomatic tools or US deterrence capabilities, it is understandable how some respondents may have based their decisions on the assumption that conflict is inevitable. Further, the survey does not consider how the North Korean leader would assess the risks and rewards of a nuclear attack on the United States. As one respondent in favor of a preventive strike explained, “Choice is, with strike 10 percent chance of retaliation, without strike, 100 percent chance of future attack.” But for North Korea, the calculation looks very different: without using nuclear weapons, there is close to a 100 percent chance of survival; with a nuclear attack on the US or its allies, the chance of survival is close to zero.
Respondent attitudes aside, the survey’s basic premise should serve as a stark reminder that the US president could initiate a war with little restraint. That respondents were asked “whether or not they ‘preferred’ to launch the strike and then whether, regardless of their personal preference, they would ‘approve’ of the US strike if the president ordered it,” exposes this disturbing political reality. It also shows, as the poll results indicate, that support for a strike was much higher among supporters of the president, suggesting that partisanship rather than informed judgments about US national interests skewed the results toward more militaristic views.
But war with North Korea is entirely avoidable—even if it masters the technology to launch a nuclear-capable ICBM anywhere in the United States. The DPRK’s fulfillment of a technological milestone does not justify the cost and risk of full-scale war that a limited US military strike could trigger.
Editor’s note: The author is a fellow at the Ploughshares Fund, which provides financial support to 38 North.