Americans Don’t Know Where North Korea Is

This article from the New York Times illustrates that Americans who were able to find North Korea on a map tend to favor diplomacy over military aggression. They also overwhelmingly favor doing something over doing nothing.

The rest of the data is just as, if not more, interesting. One thing that struck me: people ages 45-54 are by far the worst age group at identifying North Korea. My mother falls into that age range, and she said she doesn’t remember ever learning geography in school. On the other hand, I do remember learning geography and having to identify foreign countries on map quizzes. And sure enough, millennials are significantly better than their parents at pointing out North Korea. Pretty anecdotal evidence, but I’m sure we’re better at teaching geography than we used to be.

Yet nevertheless, the stereotype that Americans flat out suck at geography still rings true. Only 36 percent of adults could correctly locate North Korea on a map. Here’s each guess:

I mean, come on. I expected fewer people to select major countries such as China, Japan, India, and even Australia (!!!). Sad.

Why make such a big deal about the geographical illiteracy of Americans, you may ask? A University of Oregon professor explains:

This spatial illiteracy, geographers say, can leave citizens without a framework to think about foreign policy questions more substantively. “The paucity of geographical knowledge means there is no check on misleading public representations about international matters,” said Alec Murphy, a professor of geography at the University of Oregon.

Simply put: Since Americans are geographically illiterate, they’re more likely to let politicians and the mainstream media tell them what to think about foreign policy. If you remember the 2014 Ukrainian turmoil, the media was hostile towards the pro-Russian protesters as well as Russia itself for annexing Crimea. Unsurprisingly, those who couldn’t identify Ukraine on a map were more likely to support military intervention. Those most likely to support intervention were furthest off in their guesses.

In a conversation with my father on this topic, he mentioned that American geographic illiteracy is a symptom of a larger problem: the average American’s lack of curiosity about the world in general. This is a great point. Think about it: if you knew anything about the cultural and sociopolitical climate of Iraq, you would’ve been more likely to envision a post-Saddam Iraq not as a “rosy scenario,” but as the spark for chaotic, violent sectarianism.

Now I wish someone would conduct a study to find a correlation between one’s ability to locate Syria on a map and his likelihood of supporting the forceful removal of Bashar al-Assad from power. That’d provide some intriguing data, and based on what we’ve seen here, I think I know the answer.

The million dollar question, though: How do we solve the geographic illiteracy of Americans? Is it even solvable?

I don’t pretend to know the answer, so let’s allow this scholar to take a stab:


One thought on “Americans Don’t Know Where North Korea Is

  1. [ Smiles ] If they have an Android device, they can say, “Google, show me a map of North Korea.”

    Anyway, North Korea is always in the news; so I find it hard to believe that there are American who do not know where North Korea is.


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