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South Korea struggles to digest strange new reality of Kim Jong Un bonding with White House

Wednesday , June 13, 2018 - 8:45 AM

Brian Murphy

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

SEOUL, South Korea - At a place of reflection - a Buddhist temple with a centuries-old tree - a 70-year-old woman walked the perfectly swept grounds Wednesday and thought about what possible peace with North Korea would mean for her children and their children.

“It’s everything,” said Kim Ji-hye. “Does it matter what deals are done? Peace and reunification are everything.”

“Wait a minute,” interrupted her husband, Park Byung-hun, 74. “At any cost? Peace at any cost? That is wrong. This process with North Korea is wrong.”

Multiply this conversation by millions at kitchen tables, rail stations, parks and just about anywhere across South Korea as a conflicted country tries to digest everything thrown at it from the Singapore summit.

No place has more at stake with the outreach to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Yet so much has happened so quickly that arguments and viewpoints of just last week suddenly seem old. Now, South Koreans are trying to decide how they feel about once-unimaginable changes, among them the apparent halt of U.S.-South Korean military exercises and the direct line to the White House that Kim now possibly enjoys.

The main divisions in South Korea trace established political lines. Backers of President Moon Jae-in generally favor South Korea’s engagement with the North, which has included talks on many fronts over the past months. Moon’s right-wing opposition, like the husband at the temple, claim his government is being foolish to open to Kim’s regime without getting anything clear in return.

The summit and its suggestions of progress, however, are likely to boost Moon’s hand. Elections for local councils and other regional seats across South Korea on Wednesday were expected to tip strongly in favor of Moon’s liberal Minjoo Party.

But the fissures run deeper than just party identity.

Some pro-military South Koreans feel deeply betrayed by President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement about suspending joint armed forces drills, which have been the most vivid display of the U.S.-South Korea alliance since the Korean War. Rights activists complain that Moon and Trump are letting the North off the hook over its atrocious record of abuses and repression. Fiscal-minded South Koreans wonder if possible reunification could drain the South’s treasury.

And the list goes on.

Moon’s government welcomed Tuesday’s summit as a “historic event that has helped break down the last remaining Cold War legacy on earth.” But the post-summit statement avoided any mention of the suspension of military drills or Trump’s suggestion that he could pare down U.S. troop levels in South Korea at some point. A top government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said officials here were still trying to figure out if Trump’s reference to “war games” really meant all the drills, whose biggest maneuvers can include more than 300,000 U.S. and South Korean soldiers and others.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been assigned to decipher the summit for South Korea and another bedrock ally, Japan. Pompeo plans meetings Thursday in Seoul with Moon and Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono, before heading to Beijing.

Nothing about the summit sat well with Moon Seong-mook, a former South Korean military official.

He said Trump’s comments reinforced fears that North Korea could attempt to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.

“The core of the U.S.-South Korea alliance is the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and the joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, but the American military presence in South Korea wouldn’t mean much if the militaries don’t practice through joint drills,” Moon, a senior analyst for the Seoul-based Unification Strategic Center, told South Korean media.

Ihn Ji-yeon, a Seoul mayoral candidate from the far-right Korean Patriots’ Party, has campaigned on one overriding message: Reaching out to Kim’s regime will end badly.

“Seeing the North Korean flag hanging side-by-side with the American flag in the summit venue, I thought the state of U.S.-South Korea alliance is at risk,” she said. “Kim Jong Un is not to be trusted. This summit and the dialogues that follow will definitely put us into greater danger.”

This idea casts a wide net. Even some professed liberals see the military drills as more than just soldiers training. To 38-year-old artist Cho Ki-seob, from the southern island of Jeju, the exercises were a symbol of the generational bonds with the United States.

“I don’t think [South Korea and the United States] hold joint military drills just because of North Korea,” he said. “Even when the North Korea issues are solved, the joint military drills shouldn’t be stopped immediately. Instead, I think they should be continued, even on a smaller scale, for the sake of the alliance.”

Yet it’s not hard to hear very different voices. Groups of protesters gather often to call for the full exit of American forces. “Withdraw, withdraw, withdraw,” they chant.

Human rights campaigners complain that North Korea’s Kim is being rewarded with concessions and international prestige even as the country punishes dissent with political prisons and torture, according to U.N. reports and other groups.

“It gives me an odd feeling,” said Lee Hee-moon, an activist with a Christian group. “This isn’t a person who was elected into office. He’s a dictator. North Korea is the most oppressive country for religious freedom.”

The South Korean government tries hard to keep the focus on its parallel talks with the North, which began after the ice-breaking moves by both sides during the Winter Olympics in February in Pyeongchang.

So far, the negotiations have broken some ground on efforts for family reunifications and other exchanges. On Tuesday, South Korea gave approval to open talks for exchange students between Seoul National University and the North’s prestigious Kim Il Sung University. Military envoys from both Koreas plans talks Thursday in the truce village of Panmunjom with a possible hot line and other items on the agenda.

Peace on the Korean Peninsula would have a ripple effect, said Lee Jong-sik, who watched the summit unfold on a big-screen TV at Seoul’s main railway station. “That would be good for China, for Japan, for worldwide peace,” said Lee, who applauded when he watched Trump and Kim shake hands and sat stunned as Trump talked about inviting Kim to visit the United States.

Choi Jeong-suk was waiting for her train with one eye on the TV screens during the summit. She wrongly called Kim president, but the point was made.

“A young president and an old president were brought together by their desire for peace,” she said. “I think that’s good. I’m so happy.”

- - -

Min Joo Kim and The Washington Post’s Joyce Lee contributed to this report.

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