Can U.S. And South Korean Public Opinion Align On North Korea?

By Scott Snyder, Contributor
People march in a parade in Pyongyang on September 9, 2021, to mark 73 years since the foundation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Korea is officially known. KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea’s leadership has clearly shifted its expectations away from the United States and toward South Korea in recent weeks despite the Joe Biden administration’s unfolding “calibrated practical” offers of unconditional dialogue. With the Moon Jae-in administration in its waning days, South Korea’s March 2022 presidential election heating up, and South Korean National Security Advisor Suh Hoon in Washington for high-level consultations between the United States and South Korea, public opinion polling in both countries suggests a narrow pathway for the two governments as the Moon administration engages with North Korea while preparing for South Korea’s political transition to a new presidential leadership.

As Moon seeks to affirm his legacy of peace with North Korea, his biggest enticement to the North has consistently been the desire to achieve an end-of-war declaration between the United States and North Korea, designed to open the door to a peace treaty and denuclearization. A recent polling conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on American public opinion toward North Korea shows that 76% of Americans support a Korean peace agreement, but only in exchange for the suspension of North Korea’s nuclear program. Only 24% of surveyed Americans supported a peace agreement with a nuclear North Korea.

As in previous Chicago Council surveys over the past decade, Americans continue to strongly support diplomacy with North Korea and the use of economic sanctions as a tool by which to pressure North Korea toward compromise, while also opposing offensive military action against North Korea. This result suggests that while there is every reason for the Biden administration to keep the door open to negotiations with North Korea, there is little political incentive to make additional concessions or to sign on to South Korea’s end-of-war declaration proposal in the absence of a North Korean commitment to pursue denuclearization.

Sung Kim, U.S. special representative for North Korea, Takehiro Funakoshi, director general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, and Noh Kyu Duk, South Korea's special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, are seen during the Japan-U.S.-ROK Trilateral Meeting on North Korea in Tokyo on September 14, 2021. David Mareuil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Recent public polling in South Korea paints an even more interesting picture of the pressures the Moon administration faces in its waning days. An extensive annual survey conducted in July by the Korea Institute of National Unification of South Korean views on unification focused widely on growing evidence that South Korea’s younger generation desires peaceful coexistence with the North but are disinterested in the longstanding Korean wish for unification as a single nation. The survey results reveal both deepening disinterest in North Korea and skepticism that denuclearization is possible.

Most relevant for the Moon administration’s immediate efforts is the widespread public support in South Korea for an alliance-based approach to North Korea. Whatever tactical efforts North Korea might make to take advantage of the Moon administration’s desire to establish inter-Korean peace and cooperation will only be sustainable if Moon is able to win support from the Biden administration. 

The South Korean public’s preferred posture toward North Korea is to exercise caution against the country and to support strengthening the U.S.-South Korea alliance over an emphasis on improving inter-Korean relations. Almost half of surveyed South Koreans supported the resumption of U.S.-North Korea summitry under the Biden administration if it makes substantial progress on denuclearization, representing a vote of confidence for America’s ongoing efforts to pursue denuclearization through negotiations with the North. Among the same respondents, 20% indicated that they supported U.S.-North Korea summitry regardless of whether North Korea makes progress on denuclearization, slightly less than the percentage of Americans supporting détente with North Korea regardless of denuclearization. 

Taken together, American and South Korean public opinion on North Korea policy show a strong degree of consensus and complementarity. It is likely that this consensus will endure and provide the foundation for continued U.S.-South Korea policy coordination toward North Korea regardless of who wins the March 2022 South Korean presidential election and is inaugurated as South Korea’s new government the following May. 

Scott A. Snyder is Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (C) and his wife Kim Jung-sook cheer during the celebration of the 76th anniversary of Liberation Day on August 15, 2021 in Seoul, South Korea. South Korean Presidential Blue House via Getty Images

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