SEOUL — Kim Sang-won liked President Obama a good amount, but there was one problem: He didn’t do enough for Koreans.
The Seoul native said President Trump, unlike past American presidents, is showing up and putting elbow grease into the effort to strike peace in a conflict now 7 decades old.
“He’s going to be very creative,” Mr. Kim, 49, said as he strolled through the busy Myeongdong neighborhood Saturday, about 24 hours before Mr. Trump proved his point by becoming the first sitting president to step into North Korea while visiting the Demilitarized Zone.
The DMZ is a reminder that the three-year military conflict between the North, backed by China and the Soviet Union, and the South, backed by the U.S., ended with an armistice in 1953 instead of a peace treaty and thus is still formally ongoing.
After three previous administrations spent time trying to manage North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Mr. Trump took office with a concerted push for direct dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The move earned Mr. Trump kudos on the streets of Seoul over the weekend even if the locals — most of whom spoke to The Washington Times through an interpreter — say his manner can be off-putting at times.
“Not bad,” 15-year-old Lee Sang-min said when asked to appraise Mr. Trump. “I think he’s very brave and he has a lot of confidence when he speaks.”
Kwak Moon-hee, 69, said she thinks Mr. Trump should win reelection.
“Some people say that Trump is too stubborn and too strong, but I personally think he’s trustworthy and I like him,” she said, explaining that past American leaders were too pessimistic or passive on Korean issues.
“Trump is actually the first one among U.S. presidents who is very actively involved in Korean Peninsula issues, and, from a Korean citizen’s perspective, I think it’s something we should be very thankful about,” she said.
Mr. Trump’s arrival in Seoul late Saturday drew hundreds of flag-waving supporters greeting the president and another contingent protesting his arrival.
“In good terms, he looks very confident. In bad terms, he looks very aggressive,” Lee Yeon-jung, 27, said at one of the many Starbucks that dot this city of nearly 10 million people.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he hopes the president’s visit will accelerate peace between the two Koreas, which remain divided decades after the end of the Cold War that created the division.
More than 8 in 10 South Koreans last year said they support a peace agreement to replace the 1953 armistice, according to Real Meter, a polling firm.
Unification of north and south is a thornier issue. Many South Koreans say it is a worthy goal, though perhaps one that future generations should pursue given the burdens of assimilating one of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced countries and one of its poorest.
“It would mean opening up their country to a dysfunctional, totalitarian state and having to absorb people from North Korea into a South Korea where good jobs are hard to find,” said Scott Seaman, a director for Asia at the Eurasia Group.
“For most young South Koreans, North Korea is not a factor in their lives, even though it presents a security threat,” he said. “Older people might have memories of the war, relatives in the North and nostalgia for one Korea. In contrast, young people are busy building their lives, trying to build their careers and start families. North Korea is like the moon to them.”
Shin Beomchul, an analyst on inter-Korean relations at the Asan Institute — a nonpartisan think tank in Seoul — said younger people are aware of the “German case,” in which the 1990s unification of democratic West Germany and communist East Germany created years of economic drag.
Mr. Kim, the South Korean businessman who spoke to The Times, would know. He has been living in Germany for nine years as a senior researcher for the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in Europe, though he was back in Seoul for a two-month business stay.
“They’re still suffering from reunification,” he said of his adopted home.
Ms. Kwak said a railroad into North Korea, or the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex — a north-south economic collaboration on the border — would be a better way to proceed.
“I think the best option is to respect each other’s difference and cooperate in the economic sector,” Ms. Kwak said.
That may be the best option for North Korea’s leader, too, for the sake of his own political power.
“Unification means either he conquers South Korea or he collapses,” Mr. Shin said. “So they are not coming to the table for unification because South Korea has more population. If we have a general election, South Korea wins over North Korea.”
Many South Koreans say that is the way it should be.
“I want unification, but in a way that South Korea is in the lead,” Ms. Lee said.
Mr. Moon, has made Korean peace his signature issue since assuming the presidency in 2017.
There were signs of progress last year when North Korea participated in the Winter Olympics in the southern city of Pyeongchang and Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim held a series of symbolic summits, including a pair at the Joint Security Area of the DMZ.
Mr. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, has also helped soften Mr. Kim’s image in the South. She is considered attractive and has made her mark with high-profile appearances at the Olympics and at the Singapore and Hanoi summits between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump.
More recently, she visited Mr. Moon at the Demilitarized Zone to pay respects to the South’s former first lady Lee Hee-ho, who died in early June.
Ms. Lee, at the Starbucks, said Ms. Kim’s influence slightly altered her view of the northern autocrat, though Mr. Kim doesn’t appear to be threatening on TV either.
“My image has softened, but it’s not that I totally trust him,” Ms. Lee said. “It gives me the impression we can actually talk to him.”
Others say there is no reason to trust either side.
Jung Bo-kyung, 67, said the U.S. uses its role in the Korean War as an excuse to wield influence on the peninsula while playing Asian allies off each other.
Mr. Kim, he said, needs his missiles to survive. He thinks the strongman will demand economic relief from other nations only to restart threats when the money stops flowing.
“We cannot trust Kim Jong-un,” Mr. Jung said. “He is like a gangster.”
South Korea’s leader, though, is hoping Mr. Trump’s historic moment at the DMZ doesn’t go to waste.
“President Trump,” Mr. Moon said, “is the maker of peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
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