DAEJIN, South Korea—The spectacle of several thousand demonstrators marching through central Seoul every weekend calling for the demise of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dramatizes the growing rift between the liberal government’s drive for rapprochement and the right wing’s deep-seated fears of selling out to the North.
Those opposed to President Moon Jae-in’s pleas for dialogue with Pyongyang, even a treaty formally ending the Korean War, are clearly gaining strength. Many, notably military veterans, are aging relics of an era of unquestioned faith in the U.S.-South Korean alliance, but younger adherents are increasingly visible.
They’re making their point in displays of old-time patriotism that might warm the heart of President Donald Trump if only he weren’t so invested in the delusion that he really resolved the North Korean nuclear issue at his summit with Kim in Singapore last June.
The marchers heft almost as many American flags as South Korean ones, some of them little paper versions waved about on sticks, others huge versions of the Stars and Stripes held up by dozens of the faithful.
Urban sophisticates, notably U.S. professors in South Korea, are tempted to mock them, but Moon’s popularity rating has sunk well below 50 percent for the first time since his election in 2017, which came after the ouster and jailing of the conservative Park Geun-hye, still revered by the right as a heroine and a martyr to their cause.
“This country is deeply divided,” said Shim Jae-hoon, long-time correspondent for the old Far Eastern Economic Review and now a contributor to Yale Global, after observing the latest rightist protests. “The main problem is Moon’s North Korea policy and his naivete in believing in denuclearization.”
Moon’s eagerness to build ties with North Korea was on display here at the spacious “Interim Transit Center” in this village on the northeastern coast of South Korea just below the demilitarized zone as South Korean experts returned from 10 days examining the North’s decrepit rail system.
Colorful photo displays showed Moon and Kim beaming at each other at their three meetings since Kim stepped across the line in the DMZ at the truce village of Panmunjom during their historic first summit in April. Since then they have met on the North Korean side of Panmunjom and then in September in the capital of Pyongyang, memorialized in a panoramic montage high on the main wall of the transit center.
But Moon’s fantasy of establishing rail links only underscores the huge developmental differences between the South and the North. Kim hopes to change that, using his nukes to bargain—evidently without actually giving them up.
The team of 28 infrastructure experts were not optimistic about North-South rail travel any time soon.
After inspecting the North’s tracks, roadbeds, bridges and tunnels, Lim Jong-il, director of the South’s railway construction division, said he and his colleagues had “shared the need to conduct more in-depth inspections from early next year." No, he said, in the South Korean train they took north they could never trust the track at speeds greater than 30 kph.
Even if the U.S. and U.N. do relax sanctions, which are always blamed for preventing the North from rebuilding its rail system, the bland words of Lim and an official from the South’s unification ministry, also on the trip, hardly disguised the terrible conditions they’d seen. “We need additional checks,” said Lim in a bit of classic Korean understatement.
South Korean officials nonetheless are expected to flock to a ground-breaking ceremony on Dec. 26 for a new North-South line on the west side of the peninsula near Panmunjom just above the DMZ. The ceremony will only be symbolic, however, while Moon fights off sanctions and weighs the enormous cost of a project that’s likely to run into multi-billions, most of which the North is sure to ask the South to pay as the price for peace and goodwill.
The resurgence of the right automatically jeopardizes such dreams as the pendulum of public opinion, in the pattern of modern Korean history, shows unmistakable signs of shifting yet again.
It’s assumed that, partly for that reason, Kim did not respond to President Moon’s entreaties to please come to Seoul this month.
The fact is no North Korean leader has visited the South Korean capital since Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, was said to have gone to Seoul after his troops overran the capital at the outset of the Korean War. Three South Korean presidents have visited Pyongyang—Kim Dae-jung in June 2000, Roh Moo-hyun, whom Moon accompanied as his chief of staff in October 2007, and then Moon in September.
Violence surrounding a visit to Seoul by the North Korean leader is no paranoid apparition as the opposition threatens to call for his overthrow and death. Defying rows of policemen, they also shout imprecations against their own President Moon.
Rightist foes of both Moon and North Korea promise a mass outpouring of protests if Kim ever shows up in Seoul. Under the circumstances, an official at the Blue House, the presidential office and residence complex, told me Kim and his omnipresent bodyguards had to be worried about security.
“This administration puts its destiny on North Korea,” said Cho Jung-hun, director of the human rights center at Ajou University. “It’s difficult to maintain a balanced position.” As for Kim visiting Seoul, he said, “We don’t want another Sarajevo”—an allusion to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 that triggered World War I.
As the euphoria of Trump’s meeting with Kim last June continues to evanesce, the resurgence of the right is a reminder that South Korea, more often than not, has been ruled by conservatives.
Now all that remains is the flickering hope those two will meet again pretty soon and come to serious agreement on the North’s giving up its nuclear and missile program—not just another vague pledge “to promote the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” per their joint statement in Singapore.
“Trump is the only one who can give North Korea what it wants,” said Kim Sung-hak, North Korea expert at Hanyang University. “Kim needs Trump to lift sanctions imposed by the U.S. and U.N. and free North Korea from the bondage of evil characterizations”—its well deserved image as a cruel dictatorship that tortures, executes, and imprisons anyone showing the least sign of dissent.
Such is the condition of the North Korean infrastructure, on top of the usual problems of disease and hunger outside Pyongyang, enclave of the privileged, that some observers think Kim will be in the position of a mendicant needing Trump, more than Moon, to come to his rescue.
“Kim Jong Un has a deep problem, how to survive,” said Shim Jae-hoon. “Trump’s policy of maximum pressure”—sanctions—“is having a real effect.” Trump, Shim believes, is no longer so confident as after the Singapore summit when he claimed to have “solved” the North Korean nuclear problem.
“I don’t think Trump is going to want to meet Kim,” said Shim. “He has been sucked into this impossible situation. He is making one thing clear–he won’t meet Kim unless he agrees to denuclearization.”
North Korean rhetoric suggests, however, that the confrontation may revert to the familiar old game of dare and double-dare–with no happy outcome.
An authoritative commentary from Pyongyang declared negotiations with the U.S. were “at a stalemate” for which “the blame rests with the U.S.” Interestingly, the view from Pyongyang is that U.S. policy is now a throwback to the presidency of Barack Obama when the U.S. practiced “strategic patience,” waiting for North Korea to make a move.
Without mentioning Trump, the commentary said, “the ball is now in the U.S. court” while the North “is waiting with patience to see the U.S. abandon a wrong way of thinking and come to its own senses.” No way would “sanctions and pressure” work.
A sign that the standoff may be worsening is that Trump has said he’s “in no hurry” to go on with negotiations—a comment that may be a bargaining position. Hope rests on who needs whom: Trump, anxious to get away from the maelstrom of Washington and declare another great success on top of Singapore; Kim, in need of relief for a floundering economy and possibly restive populace beneath appearances of total dictatorial control.
As for Moon, he’s still counting on vast aid projects, notably that opening of North-South rail service for the first time since the Korean War, to advance reconciliation, but the trains won’t be running any time soon.
At this entry point into the North, U.S. Army Captain Eric Estrada, with the military armistice commission of the U.N. Command, responsible for defending the South ever since the North Korean invasion of 1950, pointed at a sprawling modern railway station near the transit center.
No trains are on the tracks, built by South Korea’s Hyundai Construction to carry tourists to Mount Kumkang, closed from the South since a North Korean soldier a decade ago shot and killed a South Korean woman who had strayed outside the tourist zone. No people are seen milling about the waiting room, and no stray railroad car lingers on a siding.
“It’s completely empty,” said Estrada as the survey team returned from the North. “We’re waiting. We’re always hopeful”—as indeed are many South Koreans despite all the barriers on the long and winding road to reconciliation at last.