Americans want sanctions against North Korea. What will Trump do?
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When Congress reconvenes next week, North Korea and China will be near the top of the Washington policy agenda, if not the legislative calendar. Tensions with North Korea remain high over its nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile, both the White House and Democrats in the Senate and House are reportedly working on strategies and legislation to address trade with China.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE frequently criticized China for unfair trade practices. Such rhetoric seemed well-tuned to Republican concerns at the time.

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Today, many Republicans remain worried about the U.S. trade deficit with China and the loss of jobs to China, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. But China’s overall image has improved, among Republicans and Americans, in general. Whether this creates a space that helps the Trump administration and Congress maneuver on trade and China policy remains to be seen.

 

With regard to North Korea, however, Americans are more hardnosed. They are quite critical of Pyongyang. A majority of both parties’ supporters favor taking a tough stance toward North Korea: increasing economic sanctions to deal with the country’s nuclear weapons program and military force should North Korea attack one of America’s Asian allies. Republicans are especially supportive of these actions.

A year ago, 37 percent of Americans held a favorable opinion of China. Today, the figure is 44 percent. This boost in China’s overall image is a bipartisan affair. A year ago, 27 percent of the GOP held a favorable opinion of Beijing, compared with 39 percent today. Democrats also express more positive ratings this year, with 49 percent of the party favorable now compared with 39 percent in 2016.

The bipartisan growth in positive ratings for China may be due in part to shifts in the perceived economic threat from Beijing. The share of the public concerned about the amount of U.S. debt held by China, the loss of jobs across the Pacific and the trade deficit with China has dropped significantly in recent years. For example, 61 percent said the bilateral trade deficit was a very serious problem in 2012, when the goods deficit was $315 billion, compared with 44 percent today, at roughly $347 billion.

Nevertheless, a clear majority of Republicans remain quite worried about Beijing. Most strikingly, 71 percent of Republicans say job losses to China are a very big problem for the United States, compared with only 47 percent of Democrats. And 56 percent of Republicans see the trade deficit as a very big problem, while only 38 percent of Democrats agree. Notably, current GOP concern about the deficit and jobs is largely unchanged from 2015. Democratic concern is actually down in both cases.

Moreover, these shifts in views of China are taking place amid improving assessments of the U.S. economy. Roughly six in 10 Americans, or 58 percent, now say the country’s economic situation is either very or somewhat good, up from 44 percent in 2016 and 40 percent in 2015.

When it comes to North Korea Americans have uniformly negative views of both the communist nation ruled by Kim Jong Un and of his country’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Overall, 78 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Pyongyang, with 61 percent holding a very unfavorable opinion. There are no significant partisan differences in such views. Both Republican and Democratic views are negative.

In addition, 65 percent of Americans are very concerned about North Korea having nuclear weapons. A similar proportion, 64 percent, say that in the event of a serious conflict, the United States should use military force to defend its Asian allies, such as Japan, South Korea, or the Philippines, against the Pyongyang regime. A further 61 percent think economic sanctions, rather than attempts at closer ties, are the best way to deal with the nuclear threat posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

While Republicans and Democrats are closely aligned in their negative views of North Korea, they differ in their assessment of the threat posed by North Korea and how to respond. Nearly 75 percent of Republicans are very concerned about the country having nuclear weapons, compared with 66 percent of Democrats. A majority of Republicans, at 70 percent, are keener on sanctions than Democrats, at 61 percent. On the question of defending U.S. allies in Asia in the event of an attack by North Korea, 70 percent of Republicans, compared with 61 percent of Democrats, favor responding with military force.

The findings from the latest Pew Research Center survey underscore that while Republicans and Democrats may be moving in the same direction when it comes to overall attitudes toward China and North Korea, significant differences remain in how supporters of each party view economic or security threats — and how to respond. The White House and Congress will have to navigate these currents of public opinion if they are to build broad support for their China and North Korea policies.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.