Americans View North Korea as Greater Threat Than Iran

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Both easily beat out Iraq and Afghanistan as perceived direct threats to U.S. security

PRINCETON, NJ -- A new Gallup Poll finds 51% of Americans saying North Korea currently poses a direct threat to U.S. security. That is the highest percentage seen for eight countries or territories tested in the poll whose political climates or ongoing conflicts present a threat to U.S. interests in the world.

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The June 15-16 poll was conducted amid continuing concern about North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but before North Korea on Wednesday pledged to launch a large-scale attack against any country that infringed on its sovereignty. President Obama said Wednesday that North Korea's nuclear program was a "grave threat" to the world.

In addition to the 51% who believe North Korea represents a direct threat to U.S. security, 34% say it is a serious threat to U.S. interests in the world, though not a direct threat to the U.S. itself. Only 10% believe North Korea does not represent a threat to the United States in either regard.

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Iran is the only country of the eight tested that rivals North Korea in terms of being perceived as a direct threat to U.S. security. Iranian citizens have been rallying after last week's presidential election in that country, with many protesting alleged fraud in the balloting. Current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of the vote, but since the protests began, the Iranian government has agreed to a limited recount of ballots.

As is the case with North Korea, the vast majority of Americans view Iran as either a direct threat to U.S. security or a serious threat to U.S. interests in the world; only 9% say it is not a threat.

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Iraq, which, along with North Korea and Iran, formed what former President George W. Bush termed an "axis of evil," is viewed as a direct threat to U.S. security by 35% of Americans.

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Americans' views of Iraq have improved in recent years as U.S. military action has made increasing progress in bringing stability to that country. But the fact that the U.S. military is still actively engaged in Iraq helps explain why a substantial proportion of Americans still perceive it as a direct threat to the United States.

Americans' perceptions of Afghanistan -- the other country in which the U.S. is conducting a large-scale military operation -- are similar to those for Iraq. Americans are somewhat less concerned about Pakistan, though both Pakistan and Afghanistan are major fronts in the war on terror.

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While relatively few Americans regard the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories as a direct threat to U.S. security, about half say it is a serious threat to U.S. interests in the world.

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Political Differences in Perceived Threat

For the most part, Republicans and Democrats differ only slightly in terms of how threatening they think the various countries are, with Republicans more likely to regard each of the countries as a greater threat. However, there are much greater party differences in views of Iran and North Korea -- roughly two-thirds of Republicans view each of these countries as a direct threat to U.S. security, but fewer than half of Democrats do.

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Implications

Americans' perceptions of other countries have proven responsive to developments in the international arena.

Americans appear to be taking North Korea's increasingly combative rhetoric and actions seriously -- 51% believe North Korea represents a direct threat to U.S. security. That is a greater proportion of Americans than say the same about nations that are larger or wealthier than North Korea, or in which the U.S. has ongoing military operations. If North Korea defies the latest round of U.N. sanctions and continues to expand its nuclear weapons program, Americans' concerns about the threat North Korea poses to the United States may grow.

Meanwhile, the final outcome of the Iranian election could also affect Americans' perceptions of that country as a threat -- in terms of whether Iran stays the course it has taken under Ahmadinejad (which could increase the perceived threat to the U.S.) or goes in a slightly more moderate direction under his challenger (which could reduce it).

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,031 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 15-16, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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