For South Koreans, Trump is a headache

Trump has done little to make South Koreans trust him.

U.S. President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One for travel to Hawaii, on his way to an extended trip to five countries in Asia on November 3, 2017 [Reuters/Jonathan Ernst]

Donald Trump is set to arrive in South Korea on November 7. The country is naturally abuzz with anticipation, in a show of how important the military alliance with the US is, especially at a time of tense standoff with North Korea.

The foreign minister and the South Korean ambassador to Washington will reportedly be at the airport to greet Trump and his wife. South Korean President Moon Jae-in will then have a one-on-one with his US counterpart before an extravagant dinner party with K-pop performances and traditional music. Trump will also address the National Assembly and visit US military base, Camp Humphreys.

All that brouhaha over Trump’s visit belies the difficult predicament the South Korean government is in. Since taking office, Trump has made clear that he cares only about US interests. To continue kowtowing to Washington would be dangerous, even if Seoul cannot quite quit the pretence of honouring its longtime ally, at least not yet.

The Trump presidency, less than a year old, has been a headache for President Moon, who won the elections in May promising greater engagement and an end to hostility between the two Koreas. He took power exactly as Trump engaged in a verbal escalation with Pyongyang, threatening “fire and fury” and unilateral military action against North Korea.

It has become apparent that the US president doesn’t particularly care about the safety and security of Korean people. According to Republican senator Lindsey Graham, Trump said, “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there.”

During the visit, Trump is also bound to bring up, at least privately, the free-trade agreement (FTA) between South Korea and the US, having insisted that it is “horrible” and “job-killing” for Americans. At Washington’s demand, the two sides agreed early October to renegotiate the deal. While Moon opposed the FTA when he was in opposition six years ago, he is hardly in a position to give it up now, considering that South Korean businesses benefit greatly from the arrangement. 


Despite disagreements, Moon has tried to sound in sync with the US leadership. He has been adamant to show support for stronger measures against North Korea and has repeatedly invoked the word “pressure,” which he says is necessary to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table.

The government announced on Friday that it was about to release a list of its own sanctions against Pyongyang, at the request of the Americans. And Moon has tried to downplay the looming FTA renegotiation, saying in August that it is not “some immediate, major crisis”.

Like Moon, South Koreans are not really enamoured with Trump, though they do value relations with the US. Most South Koreans – 78 percent, to be precise – have no confidence in Trump, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in June, but a similar number – 75 percent – express favourable opinions toward the US even at a time when the US’s likeability is declining around the world.

In a separate poll, conducted last November by Asan Institute, a domestic think tank, the percentage of respondents who said that US-South Korean relations would worsen jumped more than four times from 2015 (14.1 percent) to 2016 (64 percent). From 2014 to 2016, the percentage of South Koreans who thought US military presence in South Korea to be the most important issue for the two allies nearly doubled from 17.6 to 30.

In other words, more South Koreans than not view Trump’s intentions toward the Korean Peninsula with scepticism, and there is growing attention to whether the US should continue to guarantee South Korea’s security.

An ostensibly liberal politician that rose to power as part of a movement to oust a corrupt conservative government, Moon is trapped between an uncaring ally and an electorate that is psychologically dependent on it, and he knows it. His discontent surfaces in the media only through more talkative members of his circle, like special advisor Moon Chung-in, who caused a firestorm late September by saying that even if the US-South Korea alliance falls apart, war must be stopped.

It was actually a good point: Why should South Korea beg for American protection when the US doesn’t seem committed to peace in the Korean Peninsula?


Knowing that there are fundamental differences between Moon and Trump, South Korean conservatives have sought to exploit the visit as an occasion to fan the public’s anxiety and undermine the president’s popularity. Opposition lawmakers and conservative media are hounding the presidential office over why Trump is spending only one night in South Korea when he is spending two nights in Japan and China. They insist that the government is slighting the US president or hasn’t done enough to win Washington’s favour.

Competing rallies, for and against Trump’s visit, took place this weekend, and it’s obvious that Washington has left Seoul with no choice but to lessen its dependence on the US.

That’s why the administration rightly – but carefully – has begun working to improve relations with China. On October 30, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa announced that there would be no additional deployment of THAAD, a US-made missile defence system which was set up to protect South Korea from North Korean missiles but which has angered Beijing to no end. She also said that South Korea is working on establishing its own defence system. This has brought almost immediate relief for South Korean businesses that have been suffering from a form of unofficial sanctions imposed by the Chinese government over the THAAD deployment last year.

On November 3, Moon gave an interview to Singapore’s Channel News Asia in which he defined his policy as “balanced diplomacy”.

But, no doubt, Moon will need to explain to Trump during next week’s visit what this pivot means. And if Trump is smart, he will get the message: Show that you genuinely care for the people of this country, or we can find another ally.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.