South Korea's Far-Right Gives Trump The Warmest Welcome

Nov 7, 2017
Originally published on January 16, 2018 3:13 pm

On the streets of Seoul, demonstrations were divided between those who didn't want President Trump to visit at all and a few thousand American-flag-waving South Koreans who gave him an enthusiastic welcome.

"We love Trump, we love U.S.A., thank you so much," some of them chanted in English. Timed just before the president and his delegation's arrival to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the ralliers played patriotic music and made a string of speeches supporting the decades-old U.S.-South Korea security alliance.

"The danger that America needs to realize is that ... Kim Jong Un has already developed its nuclear weapons, it's already complete. And South Korea would be its first target," demonstrator Kyung Chol-suh said. "Our friendship is important and it stems from American soldiers dying during the Korean War."

Today, some 30,000 U.S. troops are still based in South Korea, since the Korean conflict ended in an armistice rather than a truce. Kee Woo-ta was 6 years old back then and remembers the U.S. soldiers fondly.

"Very good relationship personally," Kee said.

Katharine Moon, who chairs Asian studies at Wellesley College, says Korean conservatives have a clear us-versus-them view of the world.

"They look really toward the past of a Cold War-era relationship between the U.S. and South Korea, where it's the two of them against, you know, all the bad commies," says Moon.

The casting of North Korea as those "bad commies" helps explain why Trump's threats to "totally destroy" Kim Jong Un really work for this segment of South Koreans. Several of their signs read "just bomb North Korea."

"I believe we need to go to war, even if a couple of lives are sacrificed," says Song Ye-na. She views the conflict as a zero sum game, but the Congressional Research Service estimated this year that if a fresh conflict broke out on the peninsula, hundreds of thousands would die in the first days of fighting.

"It is definitely worth risking our lives for," Song says. "We cannot live in a country with North Korean apologists."

They are loud and show up in huge numbers on the streets. But this group represents a fraction of the South Korean public. Trump came to South Korea as its residents have dramatically lost faith in his handling of global issues.

In the spring of 2015, about 88 percent of South Koreans said they trusted the American president to "do the right thing regarding world affairs," according to a Pew Research Center survey. Two years later, that share has fallen to 17 percent, according to the center's global attitudes poll.

"Trump should not read any waving of American flags as support for policies," says Moon. "There's a huge difference between South Koreans emotionally saying 'Yay, we're really good friends with the U.S., and that's really important to us,' and going along with U.S. policies toward more belligerent, escalatory action."

For the most fervent South Korean supporters of Trump, America won their support decades ago. But the more this president talks tough against the North, the more they seem to like him.

Journalist Jihye Lee and NPR producer Becky Sullivan contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

On the streets of Seoul, protesters were divided between those who didn't want President Trump to visit and a few thousand who were enthusiastic about it. The latter group supports the longtime U.S.-Korea alliance. But as NPR's Elise Hu reports, they mask a growing distrust in American leadership.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: The demonstrators spoke limited English, but their feelings were easily expressed.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We love Trump. We love USA. Thank you so much.

HU: There are volunteers here that are handing out U.S. flags and South Korean flags ahead of the rally.

And once it got under way, the patriotic music swelled, and a string of speeches featured the same general theme, as demonstrator Kyung Jo-soo (ph) laid out.

KYUNG JO-SOO: (Through interpreter) America needs to recognize the danger that we feel. Kim Jong Un and North Korea have already developed nukes. It's already complete. And South Korea will be the first to go. We'll be the first target. And I want to say to the U.S. president that our friendship is important. It stems from numerous young Americans sacrificing their lives during the Korean War.

HU: Today, some 30,000 U.S. troops are still based in South Korea since the conflict ended in an armistice and not a truce. Ke Woo-ta was 6 years old back then.

You remember the soldiers, the American soldiers.

KE WOO-TA: Of course. Of course. Very good relationship personally.

HU: Katharine Moon, who chairs Asian studies at Wellesley College, says Korean conservatives have a clear us-versus-them view of the world.

KATHARINE MOON: They look really toward the past of a Cold War-era relationship between the U.S. and South Korea, where it's the two of them against, you know, all the bad commies.

HU: The casting of North Korea as those bad commies helps explain why Trump's threats to, quote, "totally destroy Kim Jong Un" really work for this segment of South Koreans. Several of their signs read, Just Bomb North Korea.

SON YE-NA: (Through interpreter) I believe we need to go to war, even if a couple lives are sacrificed.

HU: Son Ye-na may view the conflict as a zero sum game, but the Congressional Research Service estimated this year that if a fresh conflict broke out on the peninsula, hundreds of thousands would die in the first days of fighting. Is that a sacrifice that's worth it?

SON: (Through interpreter) There's no other way. It is definitely worth risking our lives for. We can't live in a country with North Korean apologists.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Korean).

HU: They are loud and proud of the alliance. But this group represents a fraction of the South Korean public. Pew Research Center polled South Koreans on whether they trusted the American president to make the right decisions regarding world affairs. In 2015, 88 percent of South Koreans said yes. By this year, confidence in American leadership dropped to 17 percent.

MOON: Mr. Trump should not read any waving of American flags as support for policies.

HU: Katharine Moon.

MOON: There's a huge difference between South Koreans emotionally saying - yay, we're really good friends with the U.S., and that's very important to us - and going along with U.S. policies toward more belligerent, escalatory action.

HU: For the most fervent South Korean supporters of Trump...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Yelling in Korean).

HU: ...The ones who awaited his motorcade as it sped down Seoul's main boulevard...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Yelling in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Yelling) USA.

HU: ...America won their support decades ago. But the more this president talks tough against the North, the more they seem to like him. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO SONG, "ORGANISM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.