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[Robert Fouser] South Korea’s proactive stance

The news that President Donald Trump had canceled the June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shocked South Korea as it was getting ready for bed on May 24. 

The US leader’s sudden change of heart came two days after a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The news left South Koreans unsettled and searching for answers.

The news that President Moon Jae-in held a sudden summit with Kim Jong-un in Panmunjom on Saturday May 26 surprised the nation and raised hopes that diplomacy and reconciliation could continue. As this news was breaking, President Trump appeared to change his mind and a flurry of diplomatic activities aimed at saving the summit began. Within a few days, it appeared as if the summit were back on track.

Every visit to South Korea brings surprises and the biggest one this time was positive feelings toward Donald Trump. Several left-leaning friends have told me that Trump should be re-elected so that progress in inter-Korean relations continues. Koreans across the political spectrum have argued that Trump’s election was a good thing because nothing would have changed if Hillary Clinton had won. 

In response, I have reminded my Trump-loving friends that he is a shrewd, if not untrustworthy, businessperson who puts his own ego first.

As the news of the summit cancellation spread, social media exploded with anti-Trump postings. Most of my Trump-loving friends condemned his actions harshly and urged President Moon to condemn Trump. The sharp reaction, while expected, left me wondering what defines how the South Korean left processes events.

During my visit to South Korea in the spring of 2017, the focus on political energy was on the presidential election but the left was widely critical of Trump for his hardline stance on North Korea. This critical assessment reached a crescendo at the end of the year. Trump was viewed as a warmonger who posed an existential danger to Korea.

The thaw in inter-Korean relations that began in early 2018 with North Korean participation in the PyeongChang Olympics tempered some of the anger, but left-wing opinions of Trump remained critical. The announcement in March of a summit between Trump and Kim changed Trump from warmonger to peacemaker overnight.

The prime mover in determining left-wing opinions of Trump is how he treats North Korea. When he takes a hardline, the left reacts hostilely, but when he becomes conciliatory, the left praises him.

The important question is what this means for South Korea moving forward. The current Moon Jae-in administration’s core base of support comes from people who like Trump when he is conciliatory but hate him when he takes a hard line. They believe that peace and eventual reunification are possible through dialogue. They believe that the US and other foreign powers are responsible for the division and use their influence to maintain it for their own advantage.

To the left, the division is a relic of imperialism that Koreans should join hands to overcome. This puts them at odds with the current security arrangement with the US that includes a large number of American troops on South Korean soil. It also explains their interest in reunification, which in turn explains their conciliatory stance toward North Korea.

The problem for President Moon is that the left, though strong, does not have a majority. If he listens to his core supporters too closely, he risks losing support from moderate and younger people who are skeptical of North Korea and support the alliance with the US including the presence of US troops. To date, Moon has walked a fine line between his core supporters and the moderate middle. He has satisfied both and has been rewarded with a year of high approval ratings.

South Korea’s standing in the world and President Moon’s high approval ratings have given it the confidence to become pro-active in seeking a diplomatic solution to impasse. The spontaneous summit between Moon and Kim on May 26, which would have been unthinkable a few months ago, reflects this new-found confidence.

Though prospects for the summit now look good, the situation remains fluid if not volatile. For the summit and diplomacy to succeed, all parties involved must understand their needs and work toward a win-win solution for all. Moon Jae-in’s pro-active diplomacy and ability to walk a fine a line at home will be tested as never before, but as events over the past year have shown, he is definitely up to the job.

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.