What South Korea stands to gain and lose from Trump-Kim summit

Despite improving Seoul-Pyongyang relations, Trump’s meeting with Kim in Vietnam might worry South Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend an official welcome ceremony at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport
Following a thaw in the relations with North Korea in 2018, Seoul is also hoping something substantial comes out of the talks between Trump and Kim [Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool via Reuters]

So Seung-lee was touched by the “meaningful” meeting between the US and North Korean leaders in Singapore last year.

He watched glimpses of the coverage on TV, including the famous handshake between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. But since that historic summit, the 78-year-old Seoul resident feels let down.

“Since Singapore, not much has happened with regards to North Korea’s denuclearisation process or a peace agreement. I guess it was just a symbolic meeting and that’s useless,” So told Al Jazeera. “I hope this time they come up with something that makes a real change.”

As Trump and Kim prepare for their second meeting, scheduled to take place in Vietnam on February 27-28, Lee is not the only one seeking a tangible and concrete plan to move things forward.

Following a thaw in the relations with North Korea in 2018, Seoul is also hoping something substantial comes out of the talks.


“The two leaders have already taken their first step for finishing their 70-year-long history of hostility. We hope they take more specific and practical actions in Vietnam,” said Kim Eui-kyeom, South Korean presidential spokesperson.

“We expect that Vietnam will become a great background for North Korea and the US to make new history.”

Three years ago, relations between Pyongyang and Seoul were close to the lowest they had been since the end of the Korean War. In the months to follow, North Korea conducted more than five nuclear tests, threatened to fire a missile towards the US Pacific territory of Guam and detonated what it said was a hydrogen bomb.

But last April, Kim crossed the border for talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Panmunjom along the demilitarised zone (DMZ). Prior to that, a North Korean contingent took part in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. In attendance were high-ranking North Korean officials as well as Kim’s sister.

South Korea is also hoping for a prolonged period of peace, with hopes of formally ending the Korean War that resulted in a truce in 1953, but no official peace treaty.

“For us, the era of peace and prosperity on the peninsula has drawn closer,” Moon said at a meeting with his senior officials earlier this month.

“I hope the upcoming summit will become a historic one that transforms the Korean Peninsula from a land of Cold War vestiges, marked by hostility and conflict, to a region of peace and prosperity.”

Economic engagement

Moon enjoyed a good level of public support following his meetings with Kim. With parliamentary elections next year, he will be eager to ensure a good outcome in Hanoi that can lead to further talks between Seoul and Pyongyang. 


In Singapore, denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula was top of the agenda. However, earlier this week, Trump said he was in no rush to achieve that goal. Instead, he sought to stop North Korea from testing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Moon, meanwhile, told Trump that Seoul was willing to open economic engagement with North Korea as a “concession” if it would hasten Pyongyang’s denuclearisation.

Moon said he was ready to undertake any new project from reconnecting rail and road links between the two Koreas to other forms of inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Other South Koreans, too, are hoping for a restoration of economic ties with North Korea, especially resumption of operations at the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Park which have been suspended for three years. 

Located just inside North Korea across the DMZ, the complex was launched in 2004 with the idea of South Korean companies manufacturing their products using North Korean labour, helping it improve its economy.

“We are the same nation. We can communicate in the same language. Reopening the complex creates an environment where local companies producing raw or supplementary materials can benefit from,” Kim Hak-gwon, a factory owner in Kaesong, told Al Jazeera.

“It would also help create jobs in South Korea. Almost 54,000 North Koreans were working in Kaesong, but as many as 300,000 workers were involved in the South in the supply chain.”

Reopening of the complex will benefit South Korea more than any other part of economic cooperation with the North, according to Jee Hyeong-park, professor of economics at Seoul National University.

“Without ‘direct investment’ in North Korea, the economic impact from the restart of trade on the South Korean economy is expected to be very slight and limited. It will help North Korea a lot economically and will make a big positive impact. If economic cooperation like Gaesung Industrial Complex takes place, it can benefit the South more.”

There is also a lot of hope from South Koreans on the Hanoi summit, according to a survey carried out earlier this month which revealed more than 62 percent of the respondents were optimistic of a positive outcome.

“Inter-Korean relations have been the only thing going well for the Moon government,” said Yul Shin, a politics professor at Seoul’s Myongji University. “But enthusiasm will quickly wane if we go through event after event without producing real changes on denuclearisation.”

But there is also criticism on the government of neglecting issues at home while focusing too much on North Korea.

With 1.22 million South Koreans unemployed in January – the highest number in 19 years – 23-year-old Min Jung-ahn reckons that is something the Moon administration should be focusing its time and efforts on instead of Kim.

“I don’t expect much [from the summit],” said Min. “It was fun and interesting to watch the first meeting. Now, I’m in between jobs and my future is uncertain. I’m a bit disappointed by the current administration of not tackling the issue of unemployment for the younger generation.

“I’m not saying the North Korea issue is not important but my everyday life is way more important.” 

I'm a bit disappointed by the current administration of not tackling the issue of unemployment for the younger generation.

by Min Jung-ahn, 23-year-old South Korean

There is also a worry among analysts that, following the Vietnam summit, the Washington-Seoul military alliance could be at stake, including the future of almost 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea.

Earlier this month, South Korea signed a new deal with the United States on how much Seoul should pay for the US military presence on its soil after a previous deal lapsed amid Trump’s call for South Korea to pay more.

Trump has repeatedly said US military deployment in South Korea is too costly. There was also a surprise suspension of some US military exercises with South Korea as a concession to Kim after the Singapore talks. 

“The Korea-US alliance is seriously ill now,” said Kim Taewoo, the former head of the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification in South Korea.

US defence officials said they are not planning any troop reductions but some have indicated that they would not be surprised if Trump puts reductions on the table as part of his negotiations with Kim.

There is also growing scepticism among South Koreans, especially the older generation, of North Korea ever giving up on its nuclear weapons.

However, with improved Seoul-Pyongyang relations, the prospect of a unified Korea once again has made 27-year-old Kyung Hee-lee excited by the upcoming Trump-Kim talks.

“I like the fact that they are meeting again. They are doing something that hasn’t been done before,” said Kyung. “Even though it is early to think of reunification, I think the summit can be the first step towards making that happen. If that is the case, my children can live in a unified Korea.”

Additional reporting by Sookyoung Lee

Source: Al Jazeera