August 17, 2019
August 17, 2019


Opinion on the latest North Korea issues from analysts, academics and experts worldwide. Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own.

Why, to American voters, Trump is already winning on North Korea
Why, to American voters, Trump is already winning on North Korea
Polling data suggests a clear divide between the expert community and U.S. public opinion
August 8th, 2019

President Donald Trump’s North Korea policy has already been a success.

Granted, North Korea just conducted another missile test. Also, Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs are more developed than before he took office. And Democrats and many North Korea experts of all persuasions criticized Trump’s “publicity stunt when he recently met Chairman Kim Jong Un in the DMZ. 

But on the measure that matters most to the President, he has already scored a victory. 

An exclusive KF-VUB Korea Chair poll carried out by Ipsos Mori before the Trump-Kim DMZ meeting shows that a majority of Americans credit Trump for good or at least stable relations with North Korea: specifically, 25 percent think that the relations are better than twelve months ago and a further 33 percent think that they are the same.

This positive view, in the face of impasse in U.S.-North Korea negotiations, is in stark contrast with experts’ pessimistic views. It will only have improved following the DMZ meeting, given its good optics.

The good news for Trump does not stop there: 57 percent of Americans who answer that relations are better think that this is thanks to Trump alone. A further 29 percent credit the U.S. President along with Kim.

This is a whopping 86 per cent who give full or partial credit to Trump. Part of this positive evaluation is likely based on domestic partisan politics in the United States, but Trump is also getting credit abroad for the improved relations. 

A majority of Americans credit Trump for good or at least stable relations with North Korea

In China, Japan, and Russia, among those who think that U.S.-North Korea relations have improving, the number of respondents who credit Trump alone is about twice as that of respondents who credit Kim alone.

Thus, Trump is winning diplomatically as well as domestically, despite numerous criticisms of his North Korea policy and its lack of substantive achievements. It is fair to say that the U.S.’s international standing has plummeted since Trump took office, but this is not the case when it comes to North Korea.

55 percent of Americans support the policy of mixing diplomacy and sanctions on North Korea | Photo: Donald Trump’s Twitter

After all, the U.S. President claimed last year that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” and “everybody can now feel much safer than the day [he] took office.”

From this perspective, it makes sense for him to regularly boast about his “very strong relationship” with Kim or take actions that might be detrimental to Washington’s ability to collect information about North Korea. This puts him in the news as the man behind North Korea’s behavior.

The good news for Trump continues: 55 percent of Americans support the policy of mixing diplomacy and sanctions on North Korea and only 10% favor reliance on sanctions alone. This is significant because the visibility of U.S. diplomacy with North Korea, and the role of the President in it, has taken giant steps under Trump.

Among several goals presented in our survey, 52 percent of Americans believe that denuclearization should be the first priority of the international community when dealing with Pyongyang. Trump’s policies and main goal thus command the support of over half of Americans.

For Trump, giving the impression that he is doing something is as important as actually doing it

Trump has been accused of pandering to his base with foreign policy actions such as the promise to build a wall with Mexico or launching a trade war with China.

Whether or not this is the case, it certainly helps any President to pursue policies popular with voters. Whether by chance or by design, Trump is doing exactly this with his North Korea policy.

Our poll suggests that there is a clear divide between North Korea experts and American public opinion.

North Korea experts, members of both the Democratic and Republican parties, and commentators have accused Trump of cozying up to Kim, presiding over the illusion that Pyongyang is closer to denuclearization or ignoring issues such as North Korea’s human rights record.

A majority of Americans, however, do not care. They are the ones that will be deciding whether Trump wins a second term in 15 months. The North Korean nuclear issue will not have been solved by then. Denuclearization will take years, if a possibility at all.

But the American public seems to be drawing a (premature) conclusion: Trump’s North Korea policy is the correct one, and the President himself is driving it.

Critics will argue that, ultimately, this is in vain. Conventional wisdom suggests that the U.S. public does not vote on foreign policy issues. It therefore does not matter what U.S. voters think about their President’s North Korea policy.

North Korea has conducted multiple missile tests in recent weeks — moves that have not impacted U.S. willingness for talks | Photo: KCNA

Existing scholarship, however, rejects this argument and shows that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Voters do take foreign policy matters into consideration when casting their ballots.

Indeed, existing research shows that American voters pay particular attention to the foreign policy of Republican candidates. Positive foreign policy outcomes help Presidents get re-elected, and they also improve their ability to push legislation on domestic issues through Congress.

Trump is bound to present the end of North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing as a foreign policy success to boost his electability. As the 2020 presidential election approaches, Trump will tweet about a U.S. safe of North Korea’s nuclear threat and the benefits of his “friendship” with Kim.

As long as Pyongyang does not conduct a nuclear test – it is debatable whether a long-range missile test would have the same effect on the public – it is likely that the U.S. public will credit Trump with “victory” on the North Korean nuclear issue.

Trump must know that Pyongyang will continue to be in possession of nuclear weapons at the time of next year’s election – or by the end of his possible second term. Many experts argue that he does not really care about whether North Korea denuclearizes or not. Therefore, something else must be driving his North Korea policy.

Our best bet is that he is after a political victory. He is already achieving it. For the U.S. President, it makes sense to hold the current course on his North Korea policy. Whoever comes after him can focus on the task of actually steering Pyongyang towards denuclearization.

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: White House

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