In South Korea, a Small but Notable Push Back Against Trump

21 August, 2019

United States President Donald Trump can sometimes be nicer to his country's enemies than its friends.

Trump's unusual method of negotiating appears to be displeasing people in South Korea, especially conservatives. Many now appear willing to criticize the U.S. leader.

In recent weeks, there has been a small but notable backlash to Trump and his comments among South Korean conservatives. They are unhappy about his decision to say nice things about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un while pressuring South Korea to spend more on its military.

Trump's negotiating style is not new.

The U.S. president has praised Kim as his "friend" for more than a year. At the same time, he is trying to persuade the North Korean leader to give up his country's nuclear weapons. Yet there are no plans for new talks between the two sides, and North Korea continues to raise tensions with the South.

Earlier this month, South Korean human rights activists accused Trump of ignoring North Korean human rights abuses. They disputed his praise of Kim's "great and beautiful vision for his country."

Some South Koreans express concern that Trump is giving Kim too much freedom to develop weapons. They criticize him for saying he has "no problem" with North Korea's recent ballistic missile launches. The missiles can reach anywhere in South Korea.

Others were surprised when Trump again agreed with North Korea's description of U.S.-South Korean military exercises as "ridiculous" and costly.

‘He does not know...his enemy from his friend'

US President Donald Trump speaks to military members and their families stationed in South Korea in Osan Air Base, south of Seoul, Sunday June 30, 2019.
US President Donald Trump speaks to military members and their families stationed in South Korea in Osan Air Base, south of Seoul, Sunday June 30, 2019.

And then there was a U.S. newspaper report that Trump made fun of South Korea for reportedly agreeing to pay more for protection from the North. The New York Post reported that Trump tried speaking with an Asian accent when he criticized the South.

The Post story angered South Korea's largest newspaper, the conservative Chosun Ilbo. It published an editorial critical of Trump's actions. "No other U.S. president has insulted South Koreans like that," the editorial read.

Cho Kyoung-tae is a member of the South's main opposition Liberty Korea Party. He told a radio station Trump's comments raise questions about whether the United States is a trustworthy, friendly country.

"He does not know...his enemy from his friend," he said. The Yonhap news agency reported Cho's comments.

Ha Tae-keung, of the opposition Bareunmirae Party, called Trump "totally thoughtless." He added that Trump's words threaten the U.S.-South Korea alliance, Yonhap reported.

South Korean conservatives usually support a strong policy against North Korea. They have long been worried about Trump's talks with the North because they believe Kim is unlikely to give up his nuclear weapons, notes Park Won-gon.

"Trump keeps saying (good) things about Kim, which makes conservative groups angrier," he added.

Park is a professor at South Korea's Handong Global University

Small but noteworthy backlash

For now, the anti-Trump backlash is small. But it also is important because criticism of the United States is rare in South Korea.

In 2018, a Pew Research study found that 80 percent of South Koreans have a favorable opinion of the United States. That same survey suggested that just 44 percent of South Koreans trust Trump.

South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, says the U.S. leader should receive a Nobel Peace Prize for his talks with Kim.

"You really are the peacemaker of the Korean Peninsula," Moon told Trump in June, just before the third meeting between Trump and Kim.

Many South Korean conservatives also still publicly praise Trump. They note he has kept strong international sanctions on North Korea while talking to Kim.

Alliance strong but strained

The U.S.-South Korea alliance remains strong, for now. But some experts say relations could worsen as long as Trump is president.

Trump has only increased his criticism of South Korea. He says the South and other allies do not pay enough to cover the cost of the U.S. troops that live in their countries.

At a May event in Florida, Trump said one country was "rich as hell and probably doesn't like us too much." Some South Korean observers thought his comments were directed at their country.

Earlier this month, Trump wrote that South Korea agreed to pay "more money" for the cost of the U.S. military presence. His comments appeared on Twitter. The South Korean government answered his tweet, saying negotiations about costs had yet to begin.

South Korean officials have also expressed worry about Trump's incorrect statements about the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

In February, Trump said there are 40,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. Earlier this month, the president put the number at 32,000. In reality, there about 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. That number comes from the U.S. Department of Defense.

This month, Trump said the United States gets "nothing" from South Korea, although the U.S. government has been helping the South "for about 82 years." It is not clear where he got that number. The Korean War started in 1950, with the fighting continuing until 1953.

I'm Susan Shand.

And I'm Anne Ball.

VOA's Seoul correspondent William Gallo reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in this Story

backlash – n. a strong public reaction against something

vision – n. the ability to see beyond

ballistic missile – n. weapons that can travel a great distance through the air, and then fall to the ground and explode

ridiculousadj. extremely silly or unreasonable

alarm - n. something that causes people to wrongly believe that something bad or dangerous is going to happen

accent – n. a way of speaking commonly found among a group of people

editorial – n. a story that gives the opinions of the publishers of a newspaper

favorableadj. expressing approval or support

sanctions – n. an action that is given to force a country to obey international laws by limiting or stopping trade with that country

hell – n. a term of abuse; a place where the dead exist; an extremely unpleasant situation