South Korea struggles to digest strange new reality of Kim Jong Un

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

"It's everything," said Madam Kim Ji Hye. "Does it matter what deals are done? Peace and reunification are everything."


"Wait a minute," interrupted her husband, Mr 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 June 12 Singapore summit.

No place has more at stake with the outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who is Chairman of the State Affairs Commission. 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 United States-South Korean military exercises and the direct line to the White House that Mr Kim now possibly enjoys.

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

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

But the fissures run deeper than just party identity.

A conflicted South Korea is trying to digest everything thrown at it from the June 12 Singapore summit between US President Donald Trump (far right) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, says the writer.
A conflicted South Korea is trying to digest everything thrown at it from the June 12 Singapore summit between US President Donald Trump (right) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, says the writer. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Some pro-military South Koreans feel deeply betrayed by President Donald Trump's surprise announcement about suspending joint military drills, which have been the most vivid display of the US-South Korean alliance since the Korean War. Rights activists complain that Mr Moon and Mr 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.

Mr Moon's government welcomed the 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 Mr Trump's suggestion that he could pare down US troop levels in South Korea at some point. A top government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said officials were still trying to figure out if Mr Trump's reference to "war games" really meant all the drills, whose biggest manoeuvres can include more than 300,000 American and South Korean soldiers and others.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been assigned to decipher the summit for South Korea and another bedrock ally, Japan. On Thursday in Seoul, Mr Pompeo met Mr Moon and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono before heading to Beijing.

Nothing about the summit sat well with Mr Moon Seong Mook, a former South Korean military official. He said Mr Trump's comments reinforced fears that North Korea could attempt to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.

"The core of the US-South Korean alliance is the US troops stationed in South Korea and the joint US-South Korean military drills, but the American military presence in South Korea wouldn't mean much if the militaries don't practise through joint drills," Mr Moon, a senior analyst for the Seoul-based Unification Strategic Centre, told South Korean media.

Seoul mayoral candidate Ihn Ji Yeon, from the far-right Korean Patriots' Party, has campaigned on one overriding message: Reaching out to the Kim 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 US-South Korean 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 US. "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 Korean 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 the North Korean leader is being rewarded with concessions and international prestige even as his government punishes dissent with political prisons and torture, according to United Nations reports and other groups.

"It gives me an odd feeling," said Christian group activist Lee Hee Moon. "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's government tries hard to keep the focus on its parallel talks with the North, which began after the ice-breaking moves 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 approved opening talks on exchange students between Seoul National University and the North's Kim Il Sung University. Military envoys from both Koreas met on Thursday in the truce village of Panmunjom, with a possible hotline and other items on the agenda.

Peace on the Korean peninsula would have a ripple effect, said Mr 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 Mr Lee, who applauded when he watched Mr Trump and Mr Kim shake hands and sat stunned as Mr Trump talked about inviting Mr Kim to visit the US.

Ms Choi Jeong Suk was waiting for her train with one eye on the TV screens during the summit. She wrongly called Mr 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2018, with the headline 'S. Korea struggles to digest strange new reality of Kim'. Print Edition | Subscribe