Commuters in Seoul watch news of the cancelled summit between the U.S. and North Korea.
Commuters in Seoul watch news of the cancelled summit between the U.S. and North Korea. Mikensi Romersa/CityLab

Many residents of the South Korean capital are hoping that U.S. diplomacy will continue.   

SEOUL, South Korea—Early Friday morning, a crowd of commuters waiting for trains at Seoul Station gathered around big-screen televisions to watch the news that U.S. President Donald Trump’s highly anticipated summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was officially off.

Un-jun Lee, a 50-year-old professor at Cheongju National University of Education who was traveling with her elderly parents, learned that Trump had cancelled the meeting with Kim not long before she went to bed on Thursday. She woke up feeling depressed.

“It’s such sad news,” Lee said. “We hope for peace.”

The announcement of the failed talks came as a surprise here—President Trump did not appear to have alerted South Korean authorities before cancelling the meeting, leaving South Korean President Moon Jae-in “very perplexed.” Among residents, the mood in the South Korean capital varied widely. But it’s clear that the recent de-escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the planned summit, which would have taken place on June 12 in in Singapore, had many hoping for a peaceful resolution of the denuclearization issue—if perhaps not reunification—with the regime to the north.

Lee, like many Seoul residents interviewed recently, said she hoped the cancellation turned out to be part of Trump’s larger strategy, not the end of negotiations. She and her friends had been feeling hopeful since April, when Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the two men shook hands over the demarcation line separating the two countries.

Before these recent developments, Trump had not exactly been a popular figure in South Korea: According to a 2017 Pew global survey, just 17 percent of residents polled expressed confidence that the U.S. president would “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” Echoing that sentiment, Lee said she is no fan of the American president—except when it comes to North Korean diplomacy. And she hopes Trump’s detractors in the United States support his diplomatic efforts toward North Korea, even if they despise the man. “I really hope people in the U.S. will support this issue,” Lee said. “I really hope so.”

South Koreans are famously blasé about the threat from North Korea—Seoul sits just 35 miles from the well-fortified border—and the breakdown of the talks has done nothing to change that. Jaehwa Lee, a Korean-American Catholic chaplain at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, is spending a year sabbatical in Seoul. Over pancakes at an American breakfast restaurant, Lee compared living in South Korea to living next to an active volcano that never builds up enough pressure to explode. “After a while, you just forget about the danger and live your life,” Lee said. “Koreans have known since the 1990s that North Korea is pursuing nuclear weapons. The threat is always there, but nothing comes of it.”

Trump’s biggest supporters in Seoul right now may be members of far-right conservative groups. South Korean conservatives have traditionally taken a hard-line stance against the North, and they strongly support their country’s alliance with the United States. For more than a year, a group of ultra-conservative South Korean activists have gathered on Saturdays to demonstrate on a busy street near the center of Seoul. Many call for U.S. military action against North Korea. Il-shim Sang, a retiree who said he has lived in Los Angeles, said he doesn’t believe peace talks with North Korea would ever succeed. “That’s why we need Trump to drop a bomb on Pyongyang,” Sang said. “Drop the bomb. One stop, that’s it.”

A conservative group rallying against North Korea. (Mikensi Romersa/CityLab)

There’s also support for military action among the more than 30,000 North Korean refugees and defectors who live in South Korea. Hana Park, 38, was a farmer near North Korea’s border with China until she slipped across the border in 2006 and later found her way to Seoul. Like many refugees, Park, who is a teacher at a Christian relief organization that supports North Korean families, wants Kim removed from power and the nation opened to the world. And she doesn’t believe Kim will ever give up nuclear weapons. “Why would he make them in the first place if he was just going to get rid of them?” she said. “I hope unification happens … but I think only God knows when that will be.”

Among younger South Koreans, opinions on the current prospects of a one-Korea are also mixed. Roger Park, a professor of sports economics at Hanyang University in Seoul, hopes for peace but thinks it’s far too soon to consider unification—like many in South Korea, which is experiencing its highest unemployment rate since 2001 at 4.5 percent, he’d worry about the cost of supporting North Korea after reunification. “It’s going to cost a lot of money,” Park said. “A lot of our money.”

Gi-won Kim, 42, a businessman from Seoul, also hopes for peace, but doesn’t think Donald Trump is likely to bring it. “I hate Trump,” Kim said. “The way he behaves is very bad. I hate almost everything about him. I hope for peace, and maybe it will happen one day. But not with Trump.”

When asked about the breakdown of talks between Trump and Kim, many South Koreans bring up the missing partner in any discussion of peace on the Korean Peninsula—China, which has considerable economic and diplomatic ties to the North Korean regime. Trump has suggested that Chinese president Xi Jinping worked to derail the U.S. talks with North Korea.

As she waited for her train, Xing Xu, 20, a Chinese student studying in Korea at Sungshin Women’s University, said she was also disappointed that Trump cancelled the summit, but she thinks China, the United States and the two Koreas will eventually find peace in East Asia. “I think it will happen in the future, but it may be difficult,” Xu said. “But we can’t achieve peace if we don’t face it.”

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