Trump's withdrawal from North Korea summit weakens optimism in South

Trump's withdrawal from North Korea summit weakens optimism in South

For weeks now — ever since TV pictures of a charming-looking Kim Jong-un captivated South Koreans — people have flocked to observation posts like the one at Odusan to peer, curiously, into North Korea.

The raised platforms at this lookout 35 kilometres north of Seoul have become more crowded. People casting their eyes northward seem more sentimental.

Maybe North Korea isn't such a dangerous place after all, they say. Maybe those distant hills glimpsed through binoculars hold nice neighbours, not just nuclear missiles. And, maybe, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is someone you can trust.

After the summit between him and South Korean President Moon Jae-in last month,  a poll  by the Korean Research Center found 78 per cent of South Koreans said Kim is "trustworthy," a big change in attitudes given his previous infamy here.

Indeed, the idea of peace on a peninsula still technically at war has started to feel so real that there's a boom in property sales inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ). That's the barbed-wire border that separates North from South, including a no-man's land that real estate buyers can't even enter. People are purchasing land sight unseen.

But there's also been a boom in optimism, one some now worry may have been a little hasty.

"I think maybe we've been too excited about the good results happening," said Hwang Jung-hee as she squinted across the river north. "We've been premature in our hope that the North will get rid of its weapons."

'Condescending and coercive'

This rings especially true now that U.S. President Donald Trump has announced he's cancelled his Singapore summit with Kim, which was aimed at reaching an agreement on North Korea's nuclear ambitions. In a letter to the North Korean leader, Trump blamed "the tremendous anger and open hostility" shown in a recent statement from one of Kim's officials.

That official had hinted at a "nuclear-to-nuclear showdown" and insulted U.S. Vice- President Mike Pence.

Other South Koreans say it's not their optimism that's misplaced, but their trust in Trump.

"I do feel a little uncomfortable as a South Korean citizen that the fate of our destiny seems to be decided on the whims of the strong nations, like America," said Shin Hun-woo, who also came to Odusan to look across the border.

Many believe the U.S. had failed to understand either of the Koreas.

Kim Byeong-uk fled the North 16 years ago and now runs the North Korea Development Institute, an economic think tank in Seoul. He said Washington's perspective of the North makes it very hard to reach a negotiated settlement. 

The U.S. attitude is "too condescending and coercive," Kim said.

He said the U.S. is approaching North Korean denuclearization as "a surrender, that [Pyongyang] is bowing to the sanctions levied against them."

"It's as if the Americans are the victors demanding the spoils of war," Kim said. They're ignoring significant gestures by Pyongyang, such as its apparent destruction of a major nuclear test site this week, or the release of three U.S. detainees earlier this month.

'Nothing has changed'

Of course, not everyone in South Korea is sympathetic to Kim Jong-un, no matter how jovial he may have seemed at the inter-Korean summit, or how hard South Korean President Moon has worked to cooperate with Pyongyang.

Kim's regime has alienated many by reneging on promises, using excuses that seem insincere. For instance, the North cancelled a high-level meeting last week because it said it was outraged over joint military exercises being conducted by U.S. and South Korean forces — even though Kim had previously said the drills would not be an issue.

Others here just can't bring themselves to ignore the North's human-rights violations, or the fact that Kim is a dictator who "cannot be trusted," according to Lee Ae-ran, another defector from the North and outspoken activist against Kim.

"Nothing has changed," Lee said. "Kim Jong-un wants to use his nuclear weapons to extort money from the outside world" like his father and his grandfather did in previous rounds of negotiations. "People are being fooled by this false promise of peace."

'It could still go well'

As news of Trump's decision to cancel the summit with Kim spread through Seoul, many reacted with anger, including a handful of people who protested near the U.S. embassy. They punched posters with Trump's picture and called the move a betrayal.

On the streets here, there is fear that Pyongyang will react dangerously, lashing out as it has after failed negotiations in the past.

"Now that the talks broke down, North Korea will have to take action to bring America back to the table," said Kim Cheol-hong, an office worker outside on a coffee break. "And that could mean they start launching missiles all over again."

Others, like a young woman waiting for a bus, hold on to the idea that Kim Jong-un has changed.

"It could still go well," she said, counting on the North's expressed desire to get talks with the U.S. back on track. 

"With magnanimous and open mind we are willing to give America another time and opportunity," is what the statement from Pyongyang said.

It seems many South Koreans are willing to hold on to their newfound optimism, and give Pyongyang another chance.