It’s not unusual for U.S. President Donald Trump to encounter demonstrations when he travels overseas. South Korea, where Trump arrived Saturday for his second visit as president, will be no exception.
But what makes South Korea different is that U.S.-focused demonstrations are held on a near-constant basis. On any given day in Seoul, it’s not unusual to see street parades, public speeches, or permanent protest sites where mostly older, conservative activists wave U.S. and Korean flags and chant pro-U.S. slogans.
Though it is harder than it once was to find overt displays of anti-Americanism, there are also frequent protests by South Korean liberals calling for Washington to relax sanctions on North Korea and allow Seoul to expand economic cooperation with Pyongyang.
Relations with Washington, and Trump in particular, are hot-button issues in South Korea, whose nearly 70-year-old alliance with the United States was established when Koreans and Americans fought and died together in the 1950-53 Korean War.
But Trump’s frequent criticism of South Korea as a freeloading U.S. ally, as well as his unorthodox and inconstant approach to North Korea, provide a unique challenge to U.S.-South Korea ties. Polls suggest South Koreans are less supportive of Trump than past presidents, even though an overwhelming majority of South Koreans still view the United States favorably.
Something for everyone?
A major fault line in South Korean politics is how to deal with North Korea. And on that issue, Trump has proven to be unpredictable.
Trump’s attitude toward Pyongyang has shifted from unprecedented levels of threats to previously unimaginable levels of engagement, giving both ends of the South Korean political spectrum something to love — and something to hate. Conservatives generally support a more confrontational approach to North Korea, while liberals advocate more engagement.
“I love Donald Trump, but I wish he would not meet with Kim Jong Un,” said J.P. Kim, a retiree who attended a Saturday pro-U.S. demonstration along Trump’s anticipated motorcade route in Seoul.
At that rally, some 200 people chanted “We love Trump,” sang Christian hymns, and shouted slogans against South Korea’s current liberal government.
“Donald Trump is a very close friend of Korea,” said Henry Lee, a Seoul resident who said he attends such protests every Saturday. “And we love the United States.”
Trump’s shifting N. Korea policy
Trump on Saturday offered to meet Kim at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. It would be his third meeting with Kim — a remarkable fact, given that as a presidential candidate Trump once mused about having Kim assassinated and later threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea.
Now, Trump says he is “in love” with Kim and regularly exchanges personal letters with the North Korean leader.
Some South Korean conservatives shrug off those comments.
“Trump is a dealmaker. Donald Trump does not like Kim Jong Un. It’s a political gesture, I think,” said Sungil Park, who helped organize Saturday’s pro-Trump rally.
Now that Trump has become more conciliatory, he is viewed favorably by many South Korean liberals, including supporters of President Moon Jae-in, a progressive former human rights lawyer whose signature policy is outreach to the North.
However, Trump’s refusal to relax sanctions on North Korea until it agrees to completely abandon its nuclear program has left Moon’s government in an awkward position. Moon prefers an incremental approach, and wants the United States to relax sanctions that prevent Seoul from moving ahead with economic cooperation projects with North Korea.
Trump’s alliance comments rankle both sides
Many conservatives and liberals in South Korea have been unnerved by Trump’s regular complaints that South Korea doesn’t pay enough for the cost of U.S. protection.
At a rally last month in Florida, Trump said that a certain country was “rich as hell and probably doesn’t like us too much.” The comments were widely seen as referring to South Korea. “I won’t say the country, but one country we spend a lot of money on defending — [in] very dangerous territory — and it costs us $5 billion,” Trump said.
After months of sometimes contentious negotiations, South Korea agreed in February to pay $925 million to support the U.S. military presence next year. That represents an 8 percent increase from the previous year — but much less than the 50 percent spike Trump had demanded. However, since it was only a one-year deal, the cost-sharing issue is almost certain to reemerge soon.
Koreans still love the US
Despite the controversy brought on by Trump, the vast majority of Koreans still support the alliance with the United States. A Gallup poll conducted last year suggested 80 percent of South Koreans have a favorable view of the United States – a figure that is in line with pre-Trump trends.
However, only 44% of South Koreans told Gallup they have confidence in Trump. That is down from 88% who said they had confidence in President Barack Obama in 2015.
Ahead of Trump’s visit, the White House released a written statement, attributed to Trump, that claimed U.S.-South Korea relations are stronger than ever.
“You have never had a time where this ally has been more loyal or stood by your side more than right now,” Trump said in the statement.
But although Trump is bound to encounter lots of external signs of support while in South Korea, the reality may be more complicated.