South Korea remains essential part of any peace deal with North Korea

South Korea remains essential part of any peace deal with North Korea
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The diplomacy between President TrumpDonald TrumpHouse votes to condemn Chinese government over Hong Kong Former Vice President Walter Mondale dies at age 93 White House readies for Chauvin verdict MORE and Kim Jong Un resonates with the American public, as shown in a recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Americans have long considered North Korea one of the top threats to national security, and the desire of Trump to talk largely aligns with the public preference for diplomacy over military conflict.

But as Trump prepares for a second meeting with Kim, he should keep in mind that American support will hold only if he is able to reduce the North Korean threat while maintaining, rather than weakening or discarding, capabilities of the alliance between the United States and South Korea.


North Korea has varied in priority to the American public, but it ranks consistently as one of the gravest threats facing the country. In 2017, during all the tense “fire and fury” rhetoric, another poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 75 percent of respondents named North Korea as a critical threat to the United States. This made it the top threat facing the country. In 2018, it declined to 59 percent after the first summit, but it still ranked second behind only international terrorism.

While support for defending South Korea in the event of a North Korean attack is at an all time high, there is little support for offensive military confrontation such as bombing nuclear facilities or sending in American ground troops if North Korea does not denuclearize. However, support for economic sanctions has grown. Thus, the maximum pressure campaign of the Trump administration aimed at strengthening international sanctions on North Korea aligns well with long held American public preferences.

Moreover, diplomacy is preferred as the primary instrument for dealing with the North Korean nuclear challenge. By opening direct channels with North Korea at the highest levels, Trump is pursuing a robust diplomatic approach that Americans have been consistently supporting over the past decade as their first preference for diffusing the North Korean situation.

Although the recent diplomatic engagement with Kim tracks closely with American preferences, the approach Trump has taken with South Korea is at odds with steadily growing public support for this key alliance over the past decade. During this time, the public support for American forces in South Korea has reached record levels. This public support has remained consistent and bipartisan. It has also persisted regardless of whether the South Korean political leadership has been conservative or progressive.

There is clear rationale for Trump continuing diplomatic efforts to engage Kim alongside South Korean allies. The public sees the alliance with South Korea both as a desirable means by which to manage the North Korean weapons threat and as a necessary means of reducing the risk of North Korean aggression against South Korea or against American interests.

The public would likely support a reduction, but not a withdrawal, of the American forces in South Korea. However, the public does not support any progress with North Korea at the expense of robust cooperation with South Korea. Coordination with South Korea remains an essential part of any effort to achieve a peace and denuclearization deal with North Korea.

Scott Snyder is a senior fellow in Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and the author of “South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers.” Karl Friedhoff is a fellow in public opinion and Asia policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.