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Koreans share what they really think about Trump, Kim Jong Un and the future of North Korea


June 06, 2018

Choi Eun-suk, who lives in the seaside city of Donghae on South Korea’s eastern coast, woke up early on April 27 to watch the news about South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s meeting with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un. All day, when she wasn’t sitting with her family in front of the TV, Choi, 50, was carefully watching her phone so she wouldn’t miss a single moment.

She watched as Moon and Kim joyfully embraced after vowing to work toward denuclearization and an official end to the decades-long Korean War. The image belied more than 60 years of threats and subversion since full-on warfare ceased on the divided peninsula. But the scene still filled Choi with hope and joy.

"I was so happy," said Choi, whose father was born in North Korea and fought with Americans during the war. Her family often wonders if her father’s brother is still alive. "The Korean people have been waiting for a long time for the war to end and for there to be real peace."

For Koreans like Choi, peace between North and South Korea, or even reunification, would be a life-altering development, with implications for separated families, the economy, mandatory military service and people’s overall sense of security.

As the world anticipates a meeting this month between Kim and President Donald Trump, the Deseret News asked several South Koreans to share their thoughts about the future of South Korean and U.S. relations with the North — their suspicion of rapid changes and desire for peace — and how that future might impact them personally.

Several people with the last name Choi were interviewed for this story, but they are not related. The quotes are from email correspondence translated from Korean into English.

Views of Trump

After North Korea released a series of hostile statements last month and Trump canceled and then reinstated his meeting with Kim, there is still some doubt whether the proposed June 12 summit will actually occur. But if it does, the event will be the first meeting between a U.S. president and a North Korean leader.

Choi Ji-yeong, 44, is from Samcheok in South Korea's Gangwon-do prefecture where the most recent Winter Olympics were held. He has two daughters and works as an electrician. "Almost everyone in Korea dislikes Trump," he said. "He has created a lot of trade disputes and gives the strong impression that he only cares about American interests."

A Pew Research Center survey from last year shows that South Koreans' confidence in the U.S. president dropped from 88 percent in 2015, when Barack Obama was in office, to 17 percent in 2017, the first year of the Trump presidency. That is the lowest rate of confidence in a U.S. president in South Korea since before 2003. For comparison, 38 percent of South Koreans expressed confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2017.

Seo Ju-eun, a 25-year-old nursing student from Busan, called Trump "trash." Lee Mi-kyung, a self-employed 47-year-old from Donghae, said she thinks he is "a strange person who makes a lot of abrupt decisions."

But some South Koreans are starting to think more favorably of Trump after recent events.

After Trump accepted Kim’s initial invitation to meet in March, signs of Korean approval were accompanied by a rise in the KOSPI, South Korea's stock market, according to Yonhap News.

An April poll by Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation — one of the leading TV and radio networks in Korea — showed South Koreans were relatively optimistic about the proposed U.S. and North Korean summit. The poll indicated 56 percent of South Koreans expect the meeting between Kim and Trump to be somewhat successful and 30 percent expect it to be very successful.

"Before President Trump, there were sanctions put on North Korea, but they never seemed to have much of an impact. So at first, I was a bit embarrassed by Trump’s hard-line attitude toward North Korea," said Choi Jong-hyun, 27, a software engineer from Seoul who now lives in Provo. "But seeing the results, I think it's clear that sanctions made North Korea come to the table to talk."

"Thanks to President Trump, I have more hope about the integration of Korea," said Ha Seung-hun, 22, a student from Daejeon.

Choi E., however, still has her doubts about the negotiations that may take place when Trump and Kim meet. "North Korea will never act like Libya or Iran, like Americans want," she said. "The United States is playing a power game and is demanding denuclearization. It seems they have not done their research on North Korea.

"North Korea will do whatever it takes to get what it needs," she added.

Hopeful but skeptical

After more than a half century of military threats and nuclear tests (even the discovery of multiple secret North Korean tunnels infiltrating South Korean territory), the South Koreans interviewed for this story expressed similar skepticism about their northern neighbor. However, many have also recognized the significance of recent inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korean communications and hope diplomacy will pave the way for continued progress.

"Moving," "surprising," "positive" and "amazing" were the words most frequently used by those who spoke to the Deseret News to describe Moon and Kim’s initial April meeting in South Korea. The pair also had an unannounced meeting on the North Korea side of the border in May, during which they discussed a North Korea-United States summit.

The Munhwa Broadcasting poll found that 89 percent of respondents viewed the first inter-Korean summit as a success and that Moon's approval rating reached 86 percent after the meeting.

Kim Kyung-ji, 27, from Daejeon, said she was surprised by how easy it was for the two leaders to meet, considering it had seemed like such a big deal for so long. "It was inspirational," she said.

But few expect a complete resolution of tensions between North and South Korea to come quickly.

"There are still many areas where we need to resolve problems and share opinions," said Choi J.H. of Provo, Utah. "In the past, North Korea has shown positive signs such as summit meetings with the South and the reunion of separated families, but later it returned to continuing nuclear tests and missile launches."

A Korea Gallup poll in April indicated that 64 percent of South Koreans think North Korea will never give up its nuclear program, with a similar percentage from a Realmeter poll showing distrust for the North Korean regime.

"It is just another show. It has happened twice before," said Ha, referring to previous occasions when North Korea said it would denuclearize. "But North Korea ignored its promises."

Reunification

Nearly all the Koreans interviewed for this story said they hoped North and South Korea would be reunited someday, and many said they think reunification will happen in their lifetime.

"I think it will be hard at first, but it will eventually lead to the creation of a better society," said Choi J.Y. from Samcheok. He would like to see better utilization of North Korea’s resources and the reinvestment of money spent on military defense into the economy.

Park Ki-eun, an 18-year-old South Korean student who lives in Gimpo with her parents and little brother, said she would like to see the complete reunification of North and South Korea as well. But even if that is not possible, she thinks the two countries will eventually come together politically and economically.

Some younger people, however, worry about how reintegration of the two Koreas might impact their economic situation.

Authors of an issue brief recently released by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, wrote that South Koreans in their 20's see North Korea as a "stranger" or "enemy" more than older people, and display more indifference toward the idea of Korean reunification. The brief said that because of the growing social and cultural divide between the two Koreas, South Koreans in their 20's identified less with their northern neighbors and showed the least interest in "restoring the unity and identity of the Korean people."

"The older generation wants unification, and the younger generation seems to be split. Some young people want unification, but some do not want to be reunited because of the expected tax burden after unification," said Kim K., who pointed to the example of East and West Germany.

"I am personally worried because of realistic economic problems. Korea might be very poor again," said Ha. "With an ethical or moral view, yes, I want reunification. But, with an economic or realistic view, I should say no."

Overall, despite the generational divide, over 80 percent of Koreans expressed interest in reunification.

"Ultimately, the desire for peace and unification on the Korean Peninsula is not much different between older people and younger people," said Choi J.H.

When Choi E. thinks about her father, who is now deceased, being in his 20s and living in poverty and sorrow in a newly divided Korea, tears come to her eyes. Her father was never able to return to his hometown in North Korea, she said, but she dreams of one day traveling to that place, walking on the ground he walked on and feeling the air there.

"There are few Korean people who want to reunite right now," said Choi E. "But there are fewer who would not be happy to integrate with each other and live peacefully together without the danger of war."

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