If you were to have driven down one of the main streets of Jeonju, South Korea during the second week of June, you’d have seen Korean unification flags on nearly every lamppost. The flags, white with a blue outline of the Korean Peninsula, were installed by local citizens’ groups to commemorate the seminal meeting between South Korean president Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il that took place 18 years ago from June 13 to 15.
But on Tuesday, June 12, South Koreans waited for news of a different meeting.
In the first ever summit between a U.S. president and a leader of North Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sat down at a hotel in Singapore to discuss the denuclearization of North Korea in a spectacle of unorthodox diplomacy.
Amid handshakes, flattery, and a bizarre movie trailer-style video, Trump and Kim agreed “to establish new U.S.-D.P.R.K. [North Korea] relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity” and “to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Critics have argued that the joint statement that Trump and Kim signed contains neither specifics nor promises that North Korea hasn’t made before. But the joint statement’s lack of substance does not mean that the summit is without significance—in fact, as South Koreans know, it may be a bellwether of how East Asia’s tides are turning.
“[It’s] very hard to argue that the United States extracted any new commitments from North Korea, whereas there is actually pretty decent evidence that North Korea extracted quite a few from the United States,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior research scholar at Yale Law School and at Yale’s Paul Tsai China Center, in an interview with The Politic.
For one thing, the language that the summit’s joint statement actually uses to describe North Korean denuclearization is ill-defined in a way that may hold consequences for East Asian security.
Prior to the summit, U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, insisted that North Korea agree to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” of its nuclear weapons. Yet these words are notably absent from the statement. Instead, it refers to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” To North Korea, the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” means that the country will dismantle its nuclear weapons only when it sees the military threat from the U.S. as having been removed. Many experts interpret this to mean the withdrawal of U.S. troops and a significant weakening, if not end, to the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
The summit in Singapore also conferred on Kim Jong-un a level of status that he has hitherto been denied by the international community.
Trump’s decision to meet with Kim Jong-un at all was a concession to Kim in and of itself, according to Rapp-Hooper.
“Having a presidential-level summit with Kim Jong-un has radically, over a very short period of time, transformed him from his pariah status to a leader who is considered to be worth meeting with for the United States president,” Rapp-Hooper said. In securing a meeting with Trump, she said, Kim “achieved recognition as [the leader of] a de facto nuclear weapons power, despite the fact that North Korea developed its nuclear weapons program illegally and is still under very harsh sanctions.”
Trump also gave a significant gift to the North with his unexpected announcement that the U.S. and South Korea would end certain joint military exercises.
“We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money, unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should,” Trump said in a press conference immediately following his meetings with Kim. “But we’ll be saving a tremendous amount of money, plus I think it’s very provocative.”
Trump’s language regarding the joint military exercises presents a sharp break from previous U.S. policy, including under the Trump administration.
U.S. forces in South Korea regularly participate in training exercises with the South Korean military, but the two allies also participate in larger, annual drills. The drills are meant to ensure readiness in the case of a possible attack from the North, and the U.S. and South Korean governments have long contended that they are defensive in nature.
In the past, it has been North Korea that has labeled the drills “provocative” and claimed that they are rehearsals for an invasion. The U.S. government has consistently argued that such characterizations are North Korean propaganda, meant to discredit exercises that they and South Korea conduct legitimately and legally.
Furthermore, Trump’s pledge to end the exercises took both U.S. and South Korean officials by surprise. A U.S. military spokeswoman said hours after the summit that forces in South Korea had “received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises….We will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defense.”
Some clarification came on Tuesday, June 19, when the U.S. and South Korea announced that they would cancel the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise scheduled for August. One of the two largest exercises that American and South Korean troops conduct each year, Ulchi Freedom Guardian involved approximately 80,000 troops in 2017. The South Korean Ministry of National Defense said that there had been no decisions regarding other planned joint exercises.
According to Rapp-Hooper, the fact that South Korea was not given advance warning about Trump’s announcement indicates the improvisational nature of the decision. Furthermore, by failing to notify either South Korea or the U.S. Department of Defense, she said, “the president sent the unmistakable message that the United States is willing to trade away South Korean security in exchange for precisely nothing.”
The South Korean public is divided over whether or not the cessation of joint exercises is a cause for worry. In an interview for The Politic, a Seoul resident, who would prefer to remain unnamed, said that she isn’t worried by the announcement, though she acknowledged that many South Koreans are. She believes that agreeing to end the exercises is a good faith measure which could bring about responses in kind from the North.
Kim Kyung-ae, another resident of Seoul, finds the decision more discomforting. “It’s a little too fast,” she said in an interview with The Politic. Since North Korea has told many lies before, she said, it would be better if the U.S. and South Korea put their agreement to halt the exercises into practice more slowly.
“There are many people in South Korea who have escaped North Korea,” Kim said. “These people do not trust North Korea.” In this case, many South Koreans ask, why should South Korea trust that its neighbor will keep its international commitments?
“Many South Koreans would like to think North Korea might change its ways in the right circumstances but aren’t sure yet if they can trust Kim Jong-un,” wrote Hans Schattle, a professor of political science and international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul, in an email to The Politic. “Then there is another segment of the South Korea[n] public that fears that any kind of rapprochement will only be exploited by North Korea down the road to gain leverage over the future direction of the peninsula—especially if the United States starts to pull back its military commitments within South Korea.”
Trump’s decision to cancel at least some of the exercises may be indicative of a broader shift in U.S. involvement in the region. The U.S. has maintained a military presence in East Asia since World War II, but the first year and a half of Trump’s term have cast doubts over the extent to which the U.S. will continue to be a key actor in the region.
Though Trump has yet to remove any forces, he has made no secret of his aim to withdraw significant numbers of the 28,500 American troops currently stationed in South Korea.
Many people in South Korea, and in Japan as well, worry that any move to reduce the U.S.’s military presence in East Asia would signal the start of an American withdrawal that would open up the region to Chinese hegemony.
And in fact, many experts have pointed out that the Singapore summit has delivered key wins for China already. For one, the cessation of joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea is something that China has advocated for more than a year.
“The Chinese have for a very long time been pushing for a so called ‘freeze for freeze,’ a cessation of North Korean nuclear missile testing in exchange for a cessation of U.S.-R.O.K. [South Korea] exercises,” said Rapp-Hooper.
“That’s exactly what happened at this summit,” she continued. “It shouldn’t surprise us that Chinese official media has basically been holding the Singapore summit up as a huge win for Beijing. And indeed, they may have come out almost as well as North Korea itself.”
Rapprochement between the U.S. and North Korea is also desirable for China, Rapp-Hooper said, because it decreases U.S. pressure on China to impose sanctions against the North and it removes a contentious issue from the U.S.-China relationship at a time when the U.S. is also imposing tariffs on Chinese goods.
Though the Trump administration has been highly focused on North Korea and trade, its lack of a broader strategy in East Asia has worked to China’s advantage and allowed it to consolidate its position in the region, Rapp-Hooper said. “So with North Korea increasingly neutralized as a major issue, the Chinese will increasingly have Asia as they would like it to be, which is to say, a region in which U.S. presence and influence are waning and Chinese influence is increasingly felt.”
Wary of being left out of potential trilateral agreements involving the U.S. and the two Koreas or of any discussions about formally ending the Korean War, China is also moving to increase its contact with North Korea. Just a week after the Singapore summit, Kim Jong-un visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in their third meeting in less than three months.
Some observers have even suggested that it was Xi who convinced Kim to take a tougher stance against joint U.S.-South Korea exercises. North Korea abruptly cancelled scheduled talks with the South last month, citing “provocative” military exercises, even though Kim had met with South Korea’s national security advisor two months earlier and confirmed that he understood the exercises would continue. Kim’s change of mind came just a week after he met with Xi in Dalian, China.
Relations between China and South Korea are starting to recover from the rocky conditions that persisted last year as the two nations sparred over South Korea’s deployment of the American anti-missile system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).
THAAD has been a contentious issue between the South and China since its initial deployment. The Chinese government insisted that THAAD was an unacceptable threat to Chinese national security and argued that its radar could be used by the U.S. to spy on Chinese military sites, and as South Korea pushed ahead with its deployment, China used its position as the South’s largest trading partner to make its opposition felt through boycotts of South Korean products.
But China suddenly reversed in late October. Xi and South Korean President Moon Jae-in then met in December in Beijing, where the two leaders expressed a desire to improve their countries’ relations. Officials cast the meeting as a sign that China wished to move beyond THAAD and cooperate with South Korea regarding the North’s recent aggressions.
It is also possible, however, that China saw South Korea’s determination to deploy the missile defense system, in spite of Chinese opposition, as an affirmation of the U.S.-South Korea alliance—which runs counter to China’s aspirations for stronger influence over East Asia.
A woman walks in front of an advertisement on the Seoul Metropolitan Library, which is housed in the old City Hall building in downtown Seoul. The text reads: “As South and North make peace, so does Seoul.” The blue outline of the Korean Peninsula mirrors that found on the Korean unification flag.
Yet in spite of the fears that some have for the U.S.-South Korean alliance, many South Koreans have reacted positively to the June 12 summit in Singapore.
The summit came after a months-long flurry of diplomacy that has seen relations between North and South transformed from the frosty situation that existed on the peninsula last year. Since his election last May, Moon Jae-in has made rapprochement with the North one of the defining aspects of his presidency, and his policies of engagement have become widely popular with South Koreans.
“We like Moon Jae-in,” responded Lee Gang-gun when he and his wife, Yang So-hee, were asked what they thought of the summit. The couple, who live in Jeonju with their two children, sounded upbeat and hopeful as they gave their opinion of Moon’s approach to the North.
Lee and Yang are certainly not alone in their support for Moon and his policies. After Moon met Kim Jong-un in the border town of Panmunjom in April, his approval rating rose to 75 percent, and the percentage of South Koreans who viewed the meeting as a success was high as 89 percent. What’s more, Moon’s liberal Minjoo Party achieved a landslide victory in the local elections that were held across the country on Wednesday, June 13 (the day after the summit in Singapore, incidentally).
Advertisements for candidates in Seoul’s local elections line a walkway on June 13, election day. President Moon Jae-in and his policies of engagement with North Korea are widely supported, and his party won 14 out of 17 mayoral and gubernatorial races across the country and 11 out of the 12 open seats in the National Assembly.
Moon and his policies have not always been this popular, however. Moon was elected with just 41 percent of the vote and has faced criticism and fluctuating approval ratings following each political risk that he has taken in order to keep talks with the North on track.
“It’s precisely because he distanced himself from Trump and presented himself as [having] the far more rational approach to the security issues on the peninsula that he’s won such favor for his diplomatic engagement strategy,” said Rapp-Hooper, noting the sharp difference between Moon’s efforts to ease tensions with the North and the bellicose rhetoric that Trump was employing just a few months ago. “But along with being the engine of diplomacy, he’s also very wisely engaged in … personal flattery with President Trump.”
A poll in May found that 67 percent of South Koreans have an unfavorable view of Trump, with only 24 percent viewing him favorably. But according to Rapp-Hooper, Moon has used flattery of Trump strategically, recognizing that Trump puts more stock in personal rapport with other leaders than he does in particular policies. “[This] should just indicate to us that he knows who he’s dealing with in the U.S. president,” she said.
An advertisement hangs along the downtown building of Seoul Shinmun, a daily newspaper. The text reads: “Spring has come to the Korean Peninsula! Peace flourishes and the door is open!!” Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un are pictured shaking hands beneath the text.
Outside of the peninsula, many people assume that South Koreans believe in reunification with the North, but the reality is more complicated. An annual report conducted by Seoul National University (SNU) found in 2017 that approximately half of South Koreans believed that reunification with the North was necessary. Those who supported reunification saw shared ethnicity, the prospect of reducing military tensions, reunions between separated loved ones, and even economic opportunities as compelling reasons. According to another survey released on June 18 of this year, 45.6 percent of South Koreans believe North Korea will make efforts to denuclearize but that it will take a long time to do so.
Over the decade since it was first published, however, the report from SNU has observed the percentage of South Koreans who strongly believe reunification is necessary decreasing from year to year. In January of this year, a poll found that percentage to be roughly 40 percent.
There is often a generational divide, too; older South Koreans are significantly more likely to support reunification than younger people. The poll found that the percentage of people who said they were in favor of reunification increased for every age group, with a near 26-point difference between people in their 20s and people over 60.
When South Koreans refer to their country in conversational Korean, they always say “한국 (Hanguk)”, the word for “Korea.” People never say “남한 (Namhan),” which means “South Korea” unless they’re specifically discussing the North and a distinction needs to be made.
This may make it seem as if most South Koreans would find the argument that North and South Koreans are one people, and that it is thus natural for them to be reunited, to be a compelling one. However, many younger people point to the vast economic and development disparities between the two nations and argue that reunification could come with steep costs for the South.
Nevertheless, the recent summits have had a powerful effect on some South Koreans.
Kim Kyung-ae, one of the Seoul residents who spoke with The Politic, is among those who have been won over by Moon’s efforts. “I learned anti-communism and did not think North Koreans were the same people [as South Koreans], I thought of them as the enemy. I was biased to think that talking with North Korea was impossible,” she said.
However, when she saw the summit between Moon and Kim Jong-un in April, she began to feel differently. She saw the two leaders speak in the same language about the same hurts, and now she feels that North and South Koreans are indeed of the same people.
Though she was at first skeptical of Moon, Kim now thinks that South Koreans are lucky to have him as their president.
The Seoul resident untroubled by the cancellation of military exercises emphasized that South Koreans hope for peace. It won’t be simple for the North and the South to reunite, she said, but she still hopes for it. She’s even saved newspaper articles from the Singapore summit and from the inter-Korean summit in April, and she said that she couldn’t sleep the night in May when Trump said he would cancel his June 12 summit with Kim.
The process of pacifying North Korea has barely begun, and the June 12 summit in Singapore did more to demonstrate the United States’s changing role in East Asia than any prospect of concrete commitments coming from North Korea in the near future. Furthermore, it appears that Trump did nothing in Singapore to raise the issue of human rights abuses in North Korea, and it is unclear if he realizes how little the U.S. gained from the summit.
Yet the images of a united peninsula fluttering along Jeonju’s streets and the domestic popularity of Moon Jae-in’s efforts at détente convey a feeling of hope in South Korea as tensions with its northern neighbor ease. What comes next, and the ripples that it will send across the Asia-Pacific, remains to be seen.
The quotes given by Seoul and Jeonju residents and the captions on the advertisements in Seoul were translated from Korean to English by the author.