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South Korea: The middleman between Trump and Jong-un

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President Donald J. Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in Seoul, South Korea

After heavily mediated discourse of rising US-North Korean tensions and the menace of nuclear testing in the past months, echoes of potential war have been rising considerably. But what lies ahead now? Has the cold war of words come to a thaw? And how has South Korea reacted to the situation?

For years, the southern peninsula’s duty has often seemed to mediate and compose relations between both countries, as it relentlessly seeks to lessen tensions with North Korea itself.

As usual, whilst deluded and petty discourse has been thrown across both continents, South Korea has once again assumed the role of ‘piggy in the middle’. For years, the southern peninsula’s duty has often seemed to mediate and compose relations between both countries, as it relentlessly seeks to lessen tensions with North Korea itself. Its newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, now has the heavy responsibility of maintaining peaceful and cooperative negotiations with North Korea whilst simultaneously preserving diplomatic relations with the United States. A complicated task, to say the least. Increasingly, serious policy differences between the US and South Korean governments have emerged. Whilst Moon has relentlessly campaigned for a progressive approach and the re-adoption of the ‘sunshine policy’ on North Korea, Trump’s outlook has been quite the opposite. This ‘sunshine policy’, introduced by Kim Dae-jung in 1998, aims to construct a sustainable economic and political cooperation with North Korea in the quest for better relations and even potential reunification in the future. Following Trump’s confrontational military and defensive measures against the North, however, it seems highly difficult to achieve without soiling US-South Korean relations. Moon’s goal to “embrace the North Korean people”, then, is far from coming to a close.

Recently, though, with Trump forever in the spotlight of Western media, the president’s first official visit to South Korea on the 7th of November has sparked discussion over future relations with the Southern peninsula. According to the New York Times, Trump’s visit is hoped to have improved relations between the United States and South Korea. Choo Mi-ae, the chairwoman of the liberal Democratic Party of South Korea, asserted that she believed Trump’s visit had made him consider the complexities of the Korean peninsula and the implications at stake if tensions were to further rise with the North. In his speech at the National Assembly, Trump had clearly stated he preferred diplomacy over force in the current circumstances.

Whilst such claims reflect a hopeful shift in policy, Trump’s late actions have proved less so. Not only have build-ups of deterrent US military force persisted in the peninsula and the sea surrounding it, but Trump has also as of late blacklisted North Korea as a state sponsor of international terrorism. This comes only days after a North Korean soldier was shot multiple times by his comrades in an attempt to defect to South Korea, a strict violation of the Korean Armistice Agreement. The event caused uproar at the UN, who warned further sanctions may be applied. The same discourse was heard from Trump earlier this week as he condemned North Korea for its support of terrorism “including assassinations outside of their country” and “using banned chemical weapons” as Tillerson stated in a following press conference at the White House. This will undoubtedly continue to sever already unstable relations and oppose the possibility of an open dialogue over potential de-nuclearisation. Unsurprisingly, Pyongyang’s reaction to the blacklisting was described by a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman as a measure installed by “heinous gangsters” only strengthening the nation’s resolve to further develop its nuclear program.

This will undoubtedly continue to sever already unstable relations and oppose the possibility of an open dialogue over potential de-nuclearisation.

But what are the South Korean people’s thoughts in all of this? As I walked in the streets surrounding Seoul’s City Hall days before Trump’s visit, it was clear to me that sentiments were more polarised than I had imagined. Whilst anti-Trump protesters gathered around central Seoul holding banners and chanting “Peace Not War” repetitively, another rally of conservative activists urging the US to deploy nuclear weapons on North Korea was not far off. Huge banners with “Bomb the North Korea” could be made out from the crowd, a somewhat shocking sight for a newcomer like me. It still remains unlikely that such a thing would happen anytime soon, as most South Koreans continue to lead their daily lives as usual, unfazed. For them, this is yet another episode of cry wolf. So what is there to make of all of this? One thing is for certain: South Korea remains caught in a vicious triangle of verbal confrontation, differing political sentiments and military build-ups. Will this war of words ever lead to words of war?

Stay tuned.

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