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Why do 12 percent of Americans like North Korea?


By Jenna Gibson

Twelve percent of Americans have a favorable view of North Korea, according to a new poll from Pew Research Center.

It is unclear who these 12 percent are, but the survey does give some clues. Breaking the numbers down by demographics, 19 percent of those with a high school degree or less see North Korea favorably compared with 11 percent of those with some college education and only 3 percent of those with college degrees. Women are more likely than men to say they’re favorable (15 percent vs 9 percent). Finally, those over 50 years old are least likely to be favorable at 8 percent, compared with 17 percent of 20-49 year olds and 12 percent of those aged 18-29.

The last point is also reflected in views of the North Korean threat – 78 percent of those over 50 are very concerned about North Korea having nuclear weapons, compared with 63 percent of 30-49 year olds and only 42 percent of 18-29 year olds.

US Views of DPRK

In a blog back in 2015, I tackled this issue from the other side of the peninsula. Pew had released a poll that showed only 60 percent of Americans had a favorable view of South Korea. Considering some of the rhetoric about South Korea’s trade and security relationship with the United States both before and after the election, it’s doubtful this number has increased. But another, perhaps more problematic issue, is that some people connect the two Koreas in their mind.

As I wrote at the time: “One of the biggest obstacles to positive views about South Korea is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the looming presence of its northern neighbor. The two halves of the peninsula may be physically separated but in many ways they remain connected in the minds of foreign publics – anyone who has ever lived in Korea can tell you how sick they are of answering the question ‘North or South?’”

While only 60 percent of Americans have a favorable view of South Korea, they do tend to show support for Seoul when the issue is attached to the North Korean threat. In a summer 2016 Chicago Council survey, for example, 70 percent of Americans favor keeping U.S. military bases in South Korea, higher than those who favor keeping bases in Australia (46 percent), Germany (61 percent), and Japan (60 percent).

Similarly, the Pew survey shows that 64 percent of respondents said that if an Asian ally got into a conflict with North Korea, the United States should use force to defend that ally. This is actually higher than the 56 percent who said in a previous Pew survey that the United States should step in to defend a NATO ally against Russia.

This could be in part because Americans view the North Korean threat as more critical than Russia – when the Chicago Council asked people to name the top threats to the United States, Democrats, Independents and Republicans all names North Korea in their top five threats. Russia did not appear once.

This type of opinion poll is interesting, and gives a baseline to look at how Americans see North Korea. Hopefully future surveys can dig more into the details of these opinions – and why 12 percent of Americans say they see the DPRK in a favorable light.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Graphic by Jenna Gibson. Photo from Clay Gilliland’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.