South Korea’s 51 million people have been under existential threat for so long that they’ve largely normalized the risks posed to them by North Korea. After all, Seoul has been the target of Pyongyang’s espionage plots and tunnels and artillery since Korea split in two more than 60 years ago.
Today’s South Koreans, in public opinion surveys, don’t think highly of North Korea’s regime — if they think about it at all. As for their views on Washington, South Korea’s ally and military guarantor, confidence has plummeted in recent years. A Pew Research Center survey shows South Koreans’ confidence in the U.S. president dropped from 88 percent in 2015, while Barack Obama was in the White House, to 17 percent in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration.
Now, pushed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his administration’s fast-paced diplomacy, North Korea and the U.S. seem poised to meet in a historic summit. And many South Koreans are reacting with cautious optimism.
“Bottom line is the South Korean public is relieved because a military conflict is postponed,” says Bong Young-shik, a visiting research fellow at Yonsei University in Seoul. “There’s a rising hope and optimism that things are moving in the right direction.”
In a Gallup Korea survey, the South Korean president’s approval rating jumped last week to 71 percent, 7 points over the previous week, following the March 6 news that Kim Jong Un had agreed to an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with Moon. That meeting is set for April in Panmunjom, the village the two Koreas share at their border. It will be Kim’s first face-to-face meeting with a head of state since he took power in 2011.
When Trump made his abrupt decision to accept Kim’s invitation to meet, more signs of South Korean approval followed. The KOSPI, South Korea’s stock market, climbed a percentage point following the news.
North Korea-watchers in Seoul attribute the positive responses to a simple reason: Any pause in missile and nuclear tests, something North Korea promised Seoul’s envoys, is much better than a rhetorical or actual buildup to military conflict.
Now the region enters a consequential period, and all the players know it.
“We will see major changes in the next two months,” Moon told his cabinet on Monday. “What we are trying to achieve in the short period of two months is a great transformation that the world hasn’t succeeded in accomplishing.”
The breakthroughs in this short time have already surpassed what the South Korean president likely expected, says Jenna Gibson of the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute.
Moon “just wanted some reassurance from North Korea during the Olympics,” she says. “But then it went further and further and further in what he sees as a positive way. So as far as domestic public opinion, in some ways he has already won.”
Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida described the current situation as a “moment right before the miracle.” But the opening to North Korea blindsided Tokyo — which expressed interest Tuesday in exploring the possibility of a summit of its own with Kim.
South Korea’s confidence in Moon belies its wariness about the North. In polls, opinions have hardened over time on the North Korean regime. A Realmeter survey shows 73 percent of South Korean respondents welcomed North Korea’s recent change of attitude, but 64 percent said they do not trust it. In a Gallup Korea poll released after Kim Jong Un’s New Year speech, in which he began making diplomatic overtures to Seoul, only 6 percent of South Koreans said they thought North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons. (There hasn’t been a follow-up on this question since then.)
The South Korean public also remains anxious about the American president. “The North Korean nuclear issue hasn’t been solved for the past 25 years. Trump acts as if he’s solved it in the past few days,” reads an editorial from Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo, one of the country’s largest dailies.
Meanwhile, observers say South Koreans have doubts about whether a U.S.-North Korea summit can really happen this spring, or at all.
“People are hopeful about it, if it happens,” says James Kim of Seoul’s nonpartisan think tank, the Asan Institute. But he cites North Korea’s history of suddenly pulling out of negotiations or commitments, Trump’s own history of changing course and a lack of planning at this late date as reasons for South Korean skepticism that a May summit can take place.
“The history of what has happened in the past all work against the reality that we’re facing — that the U.S. is verbally committed to sit down for a summit,” he says.
Meanwhile, the State Department saw the firing Tuesday of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had been scheduled to meet with South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa on Thursday to begin coordinating on the summits. Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s pick to replace Tillerson, recently said the U.S. would not shift its stance on North Korea. “Make no mistake about it,” Pompeo said March 11 on Fox News Sunday. “While these negotiations are going on, there will be no concessions made.”
In the longer term, if and when a U.S.-North Korea summit takes place (and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters in Washington Monday that “we fully expect that it will” happen), missteps or misreads at that stage will carry higher risks for both sides, as both Kim and Trump are the top decision-makers when it comes to their countries’ defenses.
But Bong of Yonsei University says South Koreans have felt encouraged overall by the developments of recent weeks.
“The public has been tired of the nuclear issue being dragged on without showing signs of progress. South Korea’s public has every reason to welcome any breakthrough,” he says.
A summit can be a way to force North Korea to reveal what it wants, Bong says. But what if things go wrong and it results in a drumbeat to military action?
“Moon Jae-in made a choice. We’re going to face a slow death anyway if there are unilateral military actions by Trump, which was a real possibility,” he says. “So why not try summit meetings? At least we’ll get a real clear understanding of what our options are. Sometimes you can alleviate anxiety and depression by cutting off your options. Moon Jae-in has made the game simple. We try diplomatic efforts at the highest level. If it doesn’t work, then fine, at least we will reach a conclusion. No ambiguities.”
Seoul producer Se Eun Gong contributed to this story.