President Donald Trump likes to brag that he “largely solved” the problem of a nuclearized North Korea. But it turns out many Americans disagree with him.
A new poll shows that only 31 percent of Americans approve of the Trump administration’s handling of US-North Korea relations, with another 39 percent disapproving (and 30 percent “not sure” what to think).
Those numbers are affected in part by partisan passions: 9 percent of Democrats say Trump has mishandled his dealings with the country, while 66 percent of Republicans approve of his approach.
The poll, which surveyed 1,248 Americans in August, was conducted by YouGov and commissioned by the Korea Economic Institute, a DC-based think tank funded by the South Korean government.
The results of the survey, obtained exclusively by Vox ahead of publication, aren’t overly surprising. Despite three summits between the two countries and Trump’s repeated boasts, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has likely grown in size and strength. While Pyongyang has stopped testing missiles that could reach the US, it still poses a danger to America and its allies in the region, namely South Korea and Japan.
That may be why respondents labeled North Korea the third-most critical foreign policy challenge behind China and Russia, though only 7 percent said Pyongyang was a top concern to the US. Indeed, 84 percent of survey respondents — including 88 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of Democrats — said it was “important” or “very important” for North Korea to give up its military nuclear capabilities.
But it appears the public cares not only about North Korea’s weapons but also about its people: 83 percent of all respondents — meaning Americans in both parties — said it was important for the US to push for human rights improvements in the country. Such urging hasn’t featured at all in the Trump administration’s dealings with Kim, which have focused largely on inducing the North Korean leader to dismantle his arsenal through economic enticements.
As Troy Stangarone, senior director and fellow at the KEI, summed it up, “There is a strong bipartisan consensus among Americans on the need for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and for the United States to push for improvement in human rights in North Korea, but they are less sold on the Trump administration’s handling of relations with North Korea.”
The US says talks between Washington and Pyongyang have continued behind the scenes. But short of a miraculous breakthrough, Trump will either bequeath a greater North Korean challenge to Joe Biden or have to contend with a more powerful adversary over the next four years.
Americans see South Korea as a partner but not a friend
The poll featured other interesting insights about the US-South Korea relationship.
For example, two-thirds of Americans have a “favorable” or “very favorable” view of South Korea, but only 49 percent of respondents see the country as a friend to the US. Even so, 62 percent said they saw value in the military alliance between the two countries, while a similar 65 percent said US-South Korea trade was “beneficial.”
That matters. Even if Americans don’t perceive South Korea as overly friendly to the US, they still believe maintaining strong ties is important for US foreign policy.
Still, the survey’s main finding is that Americans are unhappy with how Trump has dealt with North Korea in his first four years. Whether he gets another chance to prove himself is something voters, and North Koreans, will watch in the weeks to come.