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Südkorea Präsident Donald Trump bei seiner Ankunft in Seoul
Image: Reuters/J. Ernst

Trump's 24 hours in South Korea

Fabian Kretschmer Seoul
November 6, 2017

Donald Trump's first official visit to South Korea is an indicator of how the decades-old alliance between Washington and Seoul will shape up in the near future. The US leader sharply divides public opinion in the South.


US President Trump is visiting South Korea on Tuesday, November 7, as part of his marathon 12-day trip to five different Asian nations. The US leader elicits sharp reactions from the South Korean public, evidenced by the fact that a dozens of protesters have already been demonstrating for weeks in front of the US embassy in Seoul.

As in many other areas, South Korean society seems to be deeply divided over Seoul's alliance with Washington.

"I view Trump as the main warmonger on the Korean Peninsula," says Choi Eun-saeng, a member of the left-wing splinter party, Democracy of the People. The party calls for the US to withdraw its troops from South Korea and not deploy any nuclear weapons to the region. "After all, we and the North Koreans are one people, sharing a history of more than 5,000 years," says Choi.

With his rhetorical provocations, Trump is driving a deeper wedge between the two neighbors, the activist noted, adding: "The result could be a catastrophic war that would break out here and not in the US."

Read more: Trump's Japan trip a 'symbolic show of solidarity'

A raft of differences

At the other end of the political spectrum is Seon Hyeon-ju, who, carrying an "I Love Trump" placard, is convinced that a first strike against the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea is long overdue. Seon also sees an enemy within South Korea's own ranks: The left-leaning government under President Moon Jae-in has been infiltrated by "North Korean sympathizers," as she puts it.

For Moon, Trump's trip definitely presents a tough challenge. A wide gulf divides the two leaders' views on a number of subjects. Even their political styles and approaches to tackling issues are different.

Moon is a man of calm words who values social harmony. Trump's undiplomatic nature, though, has already put Moon in a tough spot several times. And by spending only a day in South Korea, in contrast to his two-day sojourn in Japan, Trump has once again caused a stir in Seoul.

"Above all, South Koreans hope that Trump doesn't cause much damage during his visit,” says Willi Lange, a Northeast Asia expert at the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German think tank. He considers the US president's provocative statements on Twitter against Kim Jong Un to be risky. "The North Koreans also know that they cannot start a nuclear war. It is not a completely irrational country – they know what they are doing," Lange said.

Read more: In Asia, Donald Trump must act as US explainer-in-chief

Being prepared

Still, former IT employee Woo Seung-yep strives to ready his compatriots for emergencies. In two books he gives advice on how to survive in the event of a nuclear war. In addition, Woo manages the internet forum "Survival 21," which now has over 20,000 members. The main question dominating the users' discussions: Is a war with North Korea imminent?

"At school, we were always told that North Koreans are evil and that we should eliminate the communists, but how to protect ourselves from a war was practically not an issue," Woo pointed out. South Korean society has always dismissed him as a scaremonger, due to his "survival tips."

"Many South Koreans consider my work useless because they think I am wasting my time," Woo said. But he notes that since the recent uptick in tensions in the region, his views are gaining traction with an increasing number of people.

Moon turns to China

North Korea is not the only annoying topic of discussion between Seoul and Washington. Another major bone of contention is trade. South Koreans are increasingly worried about Trump's protectionist agenda and "America First" policy with regard to commercial ties.

Trump has sharply criticized the Korea-US free trade agreement (KORUS) - labelling it "a terrible deal" - and South Korea's significant trade surplus with the US. Seoul has therefore tentatively agreed to renegotiate the pact.

South Korea also fears that Trump might once again raise the issue of funding for the US troops stationed in South Korea, demanding Seoul to cover more of their expenses.

Even during his campaign for president, Trump had criticized the South for not compensating the US enough for guaranteeing its security.

Against this backdrop, President Moon is increasingly focusing on maintaining better relations with China. Ties between Seoul and Beijing have cooled markedly since the US installed the controversial THAAD missile defense system on South Korean soil. This deployment drew Chinese ire and hurt trade relations between the two Asian nations. China imposed a hefty economic cost on South Korea, where firms suffered heavy losses worth billions of dollars.

But now, both nations appear to be mending ties and resolving the discord afflicting their partnership. It comes as South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa has made it clear that Seoul will not seek a trilateral military alliance with Washington and Tokyo.

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