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South Korea Is More Worried About Donald Trump Than Kim Jong Un
Seoul is used to dealing with an unruly Pyongyang and an imperious Beijing. But it’s the irascible American president who is imposing himself on the country's election.
When I returned to the United States recently after a few weeks in Seoul, I was surprised to find Americans in a state of panic about North Korea. Some of this came, as usual, from Pyongyang’s own dramatic language, designed to instill fear. But this time the warmongering was also coming from Washington. Back in South Korea, however, the public was more concerned with America’s antics than with the North’s. A once triangular relationship, where Seoul and Washington were joined together against Pyongyang, is degenerating into two antagonisms: the United States versus North Korea and the United States versus South Korea.
It’s hard to be a midsized country stuck between great powers — a shrimp between whales, as Koreans sometimes call their nation. Historically, that meant dealing with the vast cultural and military weight of the Middle Kingdom and the imperial ambitions of the Mongols and the Japanese; in recent decades, it has meant a complicated positioning among China, Russia, and the biggest (if furthest away) leviathan yet, the United States. But one of the fiercest reactions has been the development of a keen sense of national pride. Koreans don’t forget — or forgive — when it comes to hearing their country being put down.
That’s why it came as such a bite when U.S. President Donald Trump, in a typically careless comment, claimed that he had learned from Chinese President Xi Jinping that “Korea actually used to be a part of China.” The South Korean Foreign Ministry took about a week before officially correcting Trump’s false claim, dismissing it as “not worthy of a response.” Sino-Korean relations have ranged from amity to diplomatic submission to fierce wars of resistance, but Korea was never ruled by China. But Trump followed up his historical blunder by more present insults: a threat to terminate the free trade agreement with South Korea, which Trump called “horrible,” and a demand that South Korea pay for THAAD, the American anti-ballistic missile defense system, reversing the previous agreement.
The repeated snubs hit a raw spot during the South Korean presidential debates, counting down to the May 9 election. Social media has been buzzing with outrage over America’s gapjil (bossy bullying), which treats Koreans as a hogu (pushover). Trump’s insults came on the heels of the past five months of protests that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye. Park was the daughter of another former president and thus the closest thing to royalty in modern South Korea. Her fall was a revolt against bullying by the rich and powerful — like Trump.
But the distaste for Trump’s bullying is compounded by long-standing anti-American feelings. South Koreans have always been deeply ambivalent about the U.S. troop presence in their country, and there are regular protests outside military bases. That can sometimes peak violently, as in 2002 when U.S. troops on maneuver accidentally ran over two 14-year-old girls and an American military court acquitted them of any wrongdoing. Between THAAD and Trump, another of these periods may be coming.
The first foreign dignitary to be invited by the Trump administration was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, a country still loathed by many South Koreans for its brutal almost four-decade occupation of their homeland. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added to the sense of insult during his first Asia tour in March, when he refused to eat dinner with South Korean officials but dined with his Japanese and Chinese counterparts; the snub made national headlines. Finally, the sudden threat to proffer a billion-dollar bill for THAAD, less than 10 days before the presidential election, was a slap in the face. Each of these dismissals is being remembered and collected — and eventually a moment will come when the collective emotion of anti-Americanism explodes into protests that will shock Washington.
At the same time, the Trump administration’s approach toward North Korea blunders ahead in swings and fits. Trump promised to “solve the North Korean problem” without China, then praised Xi, then bombed Syria and Afghanistan in an attempt — as Vice President Mike Pence confirmed on his trip to South Korea — to intimidate Pyongyang. After North Korea’s latest missile test, Trump tweeted that North Korea “disrespected” China and its “highly respected President.” That was then followed by him saying he’d be honored to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. The most noticeable feature of all this was how little regard it took of Seoul, which seemed to be at best an afterthought in the administration’s Asia policy. A toll is already being taken on individuals: This past weekend, North Korea detained another American, a staff member at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, where I lived for six months.
And yet South Koreans also seem, on some level, to believe that the problems lie only between Pyongyang and Washington. In part, that’s because the focus on domestic politics has been so intense of late. There is an air of jubilance and long-delayed justice across the country as the villains of the recent corruption scandals — including former President Park and Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung — are now behind bars awaiting rulings. Samsung trials are ongoing; Park’s is due to begin in a few weeks.
But there’s also a blasé attitude toward the North’s threats, in contrast to America’s panicking. Since the 1953 armistice, South Korea has seen pretty much all there is to see when it comes to North Korea — which regularly threatens to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” South Korea, where every young man has to serve at least 21 months as a conscript, takes the threat of North Korea seriously. Yet it has learned not to react to each of Pyongyang’s provocations, which they know can only temporarily be bought off through deals. For South Koreans, the recent events are status quo Kim Jong Un business. The ballistic missiles have been tested many times in the past, and nuclear threats are a way of survival for North Korea. Trump’s erratic policies and contemptuous attitude, on the other hand, are new and catching far more attention from the South Korean public.
But there’s a fourth player in all this: China. Beijing is deeply anti-THAAD and is also South Korea’s largest trading partner. In Myeong-dong, a popular shopping district in Seoul, there is already a noticeable drop in Chinese tourists, and its effect on the economy is a concern for average South Koreans. South Korean firm Lotte has lost out on massive deals in China. As a result, likely presidential victor Moon Jae-in, who had vetoed THAAD deployment during his campaign, had said the anti-missile defense system is not a done deal.
But Koreans are not intrinsically any friendlier toward China than the United States. Before America, it was China that insulted, patronized, and frequently intervened on the peninsula. And Sino-Korean online fights over history and culture are as common as rants about America are.
There’s no reason, or inevitability, for the Trump administration to make an enemy of South Korea. Given Moon’s eagerness to engage with North Korea — he has said in the past that he would visit Pyongyang before he visits the United States — the new South Korean government will be willing to bring its expertise to negotiations with the North, which Trump himself has admitted will not be easy. Yet the newly elected South Korean president will also follow the will of the people, whose pride Trump has repeatedly stepped on. To heal this rapidly souring alliance, Trump has to stop the insults. That will only happen if the president realizes that both Koreas matter, not just a willful nuclear North.
Photo credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images