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North Korea, Cyberterrorism Top Threats to U.S.

Story Highlights

  • 82% say North Korean nuclear weapons are a critical threat
  • Huge majorities also name cyberterrorism and international terrorism
  • 40% or less see three other potential threats as critical

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Eighty-two percent of Americans say North Korea's development of nuclear weapons poses "a critical threat" to the United States' vital interests. A similar percentage (81%) think cyberterrorism poses a critical threat to the nation, putting these two at the top of a list of six possible threats.

International terrorism, which topped Gallup's lists of potential threats in five of six previous years, is something that 75% of Americans name as a critical threat this year. None of the three other issues in this year's list receives majority mentions from the public as a critical threat.

Americans' Views of Critical Threats to U.S. Vital Interests
I am going to read you a list of possible threats to the vital interests of the United States in the next 10 years. For each one, please tell me if you see this as a critical threat, an important but not critical threat, or not an important threat at all.
Critical threat Important, not critical Not important
% % %
Development of nuclear weapons by North Korea 82 14 3
Cyberterrorism, the use of computers to cause disruption or fear in society 81 16 3
International terrorism 75 22 2
The economic power of China 40 45 14
Large numbers of immigrants entering the United States 39 31 29
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians 36 48 14
GALLUP, FEB. 1-10, 2018

The high level of concern about North Korea comes after months of heated rhetoric between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. However, widespread concern about North Korea's nuclear weapons preceded Trump's presidency, with virtually the same percentage of Americans in 2013 -- 83% -- calling them a critical threat as do now.

Though the overall percentage viewing North Korea's nuclear weapons as a critical threat has hardly changed in the past five years, the percentage who see North Korea as the greatest U.S. enemy has climbed, from 10% in 2012 to 51% in the current poll. The poll was conducted Feb. 1-10, before a flurry of recent diplomatic maneuvers involving the United States, North Korea and South Korea -- much of it during North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics held last month in South Korea.

Americans Generally Less Concerned Than in Past About Potential Threats

Cyberterrorism, described in the poll as "the use of computers to cause disruption or fear in society," is the only one of the six potential threats in the poll seen as more of a threat now than when Gallup last asked about it. Eighty-one percent now see it as a critical threat, compared with 73% in 2016. U.S. intelligence officials have accused Russia of targeting the 2016 presidential election with cyberattacks, and Russian-backed operatives reportedly compromised state websites or voter registration databases in at least seven states during the election campaign.

Americans' levels of concern about four other potential threats were all at or below previous levels.

  • The percentage of Americans calling international terrorism a critical threat dropped from 84% in 2015 to 79% in 2016, and then to 75% this year.
  • Majorities of 52% in both 2013 and 2014 saw the economic power of China as a critical threat. It has dropped to 40% now.
  • In 2004, the only time before this year that Gallup asked about "large numbers of immigrants entering the United States," half of the public (50%) viewed it as a critical threat. That number has fallen to 39%.
  • Gallup asked in 2004 about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and 58% said it was a critical threat. In five subsequent polls conducted between 2010 and 2016, the percentages ranged between 44% and 47%; this year's reading of 36% represents a further decline.

Republicans More Likely to Describe Potential Threats as Critical

Partisanship affects how Americans view several of the potential threats, though there is virtually no difference between Democrats and Republicans (including those who lean to either party) on cyberterrorism. The biggest difference is found on the question of immigration: 65% of Republicans think large numbers of immigrants entering the United States represent a critical threat, compared with 16% of Democrats. Gallup also finds statistically significant differences between the party groups on international terrorism and the economic power of China, with Republicans more likely to see both as a critical threat.

Partisan Differences in Views of Critical Threats to the U.S.
Percentage who see each of these potential threats as a critical threat to the vital interests of the United States
Democrats/Leaners Republicans/Leaners
% %
Development of nuclear weapons by North Korea 80 87
Cyberterrorism, the use of computers to cause disruption or fear in society 83 82
International terrorism 71 81
The economic power of China 34 47
Large numbers of immigrants entering the United States 16 65
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians 33 39
GALLUP, FEB. 1-10, 2018

On the question of North Korean nuclear weapons, there appears to be general agreement among the parties that it constitutes a critical threat -- the seven-percentage-point gap between Republicans (87%) and Democrats (80%) is not statistically meaningful. However, Gallup polling last fall showed a wide gap in attitudes about actions that might be taken as a result of the threat. Eighty-two percent of Republicans in a Sept. 6-10 poll said they would favor military action against North Korea if peaceful means failed to achieve the United States' goals, compared with 37% of Democrats.

Bottom Line

Gallup has polled on lists of potential threats to U.S. vital interests seven times since 2004. In each of those surveys, at least one of the threats Americans were most likely to consider "critical" dealt with terrorism or the development of nuclear weapons by a country at odds with the United States. This year, the three potential threats most often named as critical all fit into one of these two categories, and at least three-fourths of the public describes each as critical.

For each of the three issues, there is little disagreement among the public about the severity of the threat; large majorities across all demographic groups agree that it is critical.

Such widespread agreement may matter little if various factions -- political and otherwise -- profoundly disagree on how to deal with the threat. But underestimating the threat facing a nation can have tragic consequences, as was the case when Europe and the United States ignored the dangers presented by Nazi Germany. The results can be just as tragic when a nation overestimates the extent of a potential threat and takes actions that lead to an avoidable armed conflict.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 1-10, 2018, on the Gallup U.S. Poll, with a random sample of 1,044 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. For results based on the samples of Republicans and Democrats, the margins of sampling error are between ±5 and ±6 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 70% cellphone respondents and 30% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.