Asia Pacific

One-third of Americans would back nuclear strike on North Korea — even if it killed a million civilians, survey shows

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Over one-third of Americans would back a preventive attack by the U.S. on North Korea — including one using nuclear weapons — despite knowing it would kill some 1 million civilians, an innovative new survey has found.

According to the survey, published Monday by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in collaboration with U.K.-based research firm YouGov, one of the most “disconcerting” findings was that “a large hawkish minority lurks within the U.S. public; over a third of respondents approve of a U.S. preventive strike across the scenarios and appear insensitive to informational cues that most security experts would expect to reduce such levels of support.”

Surprisingly, the researchers found, little changed when the scenarios were switched from a conventional to a nuclear attack. Rather, it said, “33 percent preferred a preventive nuclear first-strike.”

“Even more disturbing: There is no significant change in the percentage who would prefer or approve of a U.S. nuclear strike when the number of estimated North Korean fatalities increases from 15,000 to 1.1 million, including 1 million civilians,” the researchers behind the survey wrote.

The results, they said, actually highlighted a previously-established pattern among the U.S. public, which “exhibits only limited aversion to nuclear weapons use and a shocking willingness to support the killing of enemy civilians.”

The survey’s release came a day ahead of Tuesday’s 69th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, a conflict in which the U.S. weighed the option of using nuclear weapons.

It also came as a reboot of stalled denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea appeared to gain momentum after the two countries’ leaders exchanged letters.

Ties between the two nuclear-armed nations have remained cool since the collapse of a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but have still improved substantially since 2017 — when Pyongyang lobbed long-range missiles over Japan and Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on the North if it threatened the United States or its allies.

In August of that year, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said in an interview that Trump had told him war between the United States and North Korea was imminent if Pyongyang continued to aim its long-range missiles at America.

Graham, who had pushed for the military option at the time, said Trump had told him that while a conflict would kill scores, it would be “over there” in Northeast Asia.

Authorizing military action against North Korea raises the risk of escalation and miscalculation. That might include potential use by the Kim regime of nuclear weapons against Japan, South Korea and possibly even the continental United States, with Kim viewing such a move as an attempt to wipe out his regime, experts say.

According to one estimate by the North Korea-watching 38 North website, up to 2.1 million people in Tokyo and Seoul would die and another 7.7 million would be injured if Pyongyang attacked the two Asian capitals with nuclear weapons in response to U.S.-led military action.

Asked if casualties in Japan resulting from a North Korean retaliatory strike — including U.S. military personnel — would dampen the support of the hawkish minority for such strikes, Scott Sagan, a professor of political science and co-author of the survey, noted that while the poll did not explicitly ask the public how it would respond to such an attack on Japan or U.S. military bases here, the effect of having American troops provided a deterrent from such a strike.

“We know from many polls that the public is more likely to support responding to an attack by an adversary if U.S. troops have been killed than if not, even in an attack against an ally,” Sagan said. “U.S. forces in Japan are therefore not just a benefit for the defense of Japan if it is attacked, but they are also part of maintaining a credible deterrent, because the U.S. public wold more strongly support retaliation against an adversary if U.S. soldiers have attacked.”

The survey also showed that, should Trump and Kim’s relationship falter, even more respondents would back a decision by the president to attack — part of a “rally ’round the flag” effect when, during times of international crisis, support for the president increases, at least temporarily.

“Across all conditions, approval for the U.S. strike is notably (although not always significantly, in a statistical sense) higher than preference, meaning a number of respondents discount their personal preferences in favor of the president’s,” the report found. “For example, while ‘only’ 33 percent of the U.S. public prefer a U.S. preventive nuclear strike that would kill 15,000 North Koreans, 50 percent approve.”

There was also a political tinge to answers. Republicans expressed greater preference for the use of military force than Democrats, though most respondents overall opposed military action against North Korea.

This trend was highlighted by the fact that the “majority of Trump supporters prefer the U.S. strike in every scenario, except when confidence in the effectiveness of the U.S. conventional strike is 50 percent” — and even then it dipped only 6 percentage points to 44 percent.

The survey also exposed “how deeply misinformed Americans are about U.S. offensive and defensive military capabilities.”

One-third of those surveyed believed there was a 75 percent probability that the U.S. could take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons in a single volley of strikes, while some 74 percent thought it “highly likely or somewhat likely” the nation would be able to intercept a trio of incoming North Korea nuclear-tipped missiles.

Experts — and even the U.S. military itself — have routinely thrown cold water on both assessments, noting that the intelligence community has not identified all of the North’s nuclear weapons sites and that missile defense technology remains unreliable.

The study wrapped up with a call “for a renewed effort at mass public nuclear education” and so scientists and social scientists “can communicate the facts and, therefore, influence the calculations of an informed public.”

“A misinformed public is easily misled into dangerous conflicts,” it said.