Trump, Take Note: Public Wants Rational Steps at Summit

Tonight’s summit in Singapore between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of North Korea, will be reality TV meets international politics with high stakes. It could usher in a process for the formal end to the Korean War and a resolution of the nuclear crisis between the two countries. Or, if it goes badly, the meeting could be a step on the road to war, should irrationality win over realism. Given the unprecedented nature of the summit and the personalities of the two leaders involved, it is anyone’s guess how it will proceed and what results, if any, it midwives.

To better understand what Americans and South Koreans think about this historic meeting, the Charles Koch Institute and RealClearPolitics conducted a polling residents of both countries.

This new data is revealing and sends a strong signal to President Trump. Most importantly, it demonstrates that Americans and South Koreans are not eager for military action to end the impasse. Americans also are quite willing to bring our troops home should the United States and North Korea agree to a peace treaty or if North Korea denuclearizes. These findings  show that the president has more bargaining chips than the establishment seems to believe. It also suggests that an obstinate negotiator winging it on his own could risk a slide into conflict without the American people’s support.       

The survey shows that very few Americans or South Koreans believe that military action is the best approach for their countries. When given several options, only 19 percent of Americans and 15 percent of South Koreans favor bombing nuclear facilities or invading North Korea to eliminate the nuclear threat and conduct regime change. When asked about options if North Korea ultimately does not end its nuclear program, those numbers increase, but not dramatically: to 30 percent of Americans and 21 percent of South Koreans.          

Instead, Americans and South Koreans support more peaceful approaches. Sixty-nine percent of Americans and 55 percent of South Koreans currently want to continue diplomatic discussions. Tellingly, a strong majority (62 percent of Americans and 55 percent of South Koreans) favor further diplomatic engagement even if North Korea doesn’t wind down its nuclear program.

Americans also continue to support deterrence and sanctions. About half of Americans want to rely on these now and in the event denuclearization doesn’t happen. South Koreans, though, are not currently enamored of either approach and prefer pursuing an economic opening with North Korea (sometimes called the “Sunshine Policy”) separate from political engagement. In general, South Koreans are a bit more dovish than Americans on how to approach North Korea, which is realistic given that they would have to bear the more immediate cost of a hawkish approach.  

Our poll also clearly shows strong American support for bringing U.S. troops home from the peninsula: 70 percent want U.S. troops to come home—period—or if certain objectives are achieved. Only 21 percent want them to stay indefinitely. For those who want them to come home, fully a third want them to move back to the United States either regardless of what is happening in Asia or in the event of an agreement to replace the armistice and end the Korean War. And another third want U.S. troops to come home if there is successful North Korean disarmament.

South Koreans are more divided on this issue. Forty-five percent want U.S. troops to stay indefinitely while 48 percent want them to leave if certain conditions are met. Specifically, 8 percent want the American military to leave regardless of what’s going on in Asia, 28 percent if there is a final peaceful resolution of the Korean War, and 12 percent if the north denuclearizes.          

With its preference for diplomacy and deterrence over warfare, the American public is thinking rationally given the devastating consequences of conflict in Korea. Americans also show prudence and appreciation for the sacrifices our troops overseas make by recognizing they should finally come home if certain objectives are achieved.

Finally, the American public demonstrates a rational understanding of why North Korea pursued nuclear weapons in the first place. One-third believe North Korea pursued nuclear weapons as a permanent bargaining chip to relieve sanctions. Another 26 percent said North Korea probably wanted to prevent other military powers from attempting regime change.

Trump needs to approach his negotiations with Kim using the same rationality and realism, focusing on achieving a deal that puts American safety first. By recognizing North Korea’s own incentives and constraints, as well as remembering the backstop of the United States’ nuclear deterrent, America’s leader can achieve what his constituents want: peace, security, and our troops out of harm’s way.

William Ruger is vice president of research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and a veteran of the Afghanistan War.