Immediately after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a joint declaration at the end of last week’s summit in Singapore, I received a harsh assessment of the meeting from a conservative colleague in South Korea. In his view, the summit was “a total failure. They failed to agree on CVID [complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization]. It is a victory for North Korea.” Other experts in Seoul raised concerns about the future of the U.S.–South Korean alliance following Trump’s abrupt announcement that South Korean–U.S. “war games” would be suspended, as well as his decision not to raise the issue of human rights with Kim. In this sense, there is a paradoxical similarity between South Korean conservatives’ and the American liberal mainstream’s criticisms of Trump and his agreement with the North Korean leader.
Yet as South Korean President Moon Jae-in explained to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 13 during his visit to Seoul, public sentiment in South Korea is very different from that expressed by experts. According to one survey conducted a week before the meeting, 81 percent of South Koreans expressed an optimistic attitude toward the summit and its prospects. More important, Trump is now viewed as a champion of peace and denuclearization in the country. This represents an amazing transformation of his image.
South Koreans still vividly remember Trump’s remarks at the United Nations in September of last year: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea….The United States is ready, willing, and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.” This came after his provocative statement in August: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” These were truly frightening words. No
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