South Korea's Far-Right Gives Trump The Warmest Welcome
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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.