As the world faces the looming possibility of a Trump presidency, Koreans are struggling to wrap their heads around the prospect. Probably nowhere else in the world has the likelihood of a Trump presidency caused as much consternation as in South Korea, which The Donald has repeatedly attacked as being an ungrateful ally that drains American tax dollars.
But while most South Koreans worry that a President Trump might indeed want to pull out US forces or make excessive demands to stay on, leaving the country exposed to its northern nemesis, some are drawing succour from old business ties between Trump and South Korea. It was, after all, Daewoo Construction that built Trump World Tower in Manhattan in 1997, followed by seven Trump World complexes in Korea.
Others are working past Trump’s rhetoric toward more pragmatic ground. “Trump’s remarks right now are in order to garner votes,” Chun Yung-woo, a former presidential national security adviser, said recently.
“If Trump is elected, we need to prepare for what we will give and take diplomatically.”
But given Trump’s inconsistency and lack of expertise with regard to foreign policy, this is easier said than done.
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“Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand the web of alliance that protects the security of the US and functions globally to make Americans safer,” said Kim Yongho, professor of political science and international relations at Yonsei University. “We can hardly find [any] consistency in his claim. We don’t know how to prepare.”
This feeling of uncertainty is virtually universal in South Korea, with some unable to fathom how the United States could ever forgo one of its strongest allies in the region while others are unsure what Trump will actually do if he reaches the Oval Office.
“I honestly don’t know,” said Jieun Kwak, founder of the mobile game publisher Underdogs, about what to expect if Trump wins. “He seems insane. Anything could happen.”
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Trump has made several outrageous statements about the country over the past half decade. According to him, the US gets nothing for keeping its troops in South Korea. “We have 28,000 soldiers on the line in South Korea between the madman and them. We get practically nothing compared to the cost of this,” he said in an interview with NBC.
But South Korea pays roughly half the US military’s personnel costs in the country, making it cheaper for the US to keep its troops there than at home. In April 2014, for instance, the South Korean National Assembly approved US$866.6 million that year alone towards the US military presence as part of the new five-year Special Measures Agreement.
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And then there’s the region’s enormous geopolitical value. As one March 28 editorial in the Korea JoongAng Daily put it: “Trump must refrain from his penny-wise and pound-foolish approach.”
His approach has, however, galvanised South Koreans who oppose the US-South Korea alliance, by aligning him with Pyongyang’s interests. The state-run DPRK Today published a piece in May that said: “Trump is not the rough-talking, screwy, ignorant candidate they say he is, but is actually a wise politician.”
The following month at a rally in Atlanta, Trump said of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: “If he came here, I would accept him.”
Perhaps even more alarming is his suggestion that South Korea and Japan should develop nuclear weapons, too – a suggestion apparently echoed last month after the North’s fifth nuclear test, when Hong Moon-jong, a lawmaker of the foreign affairs and unification committee, said: “South Korea needs nuclear arms, as well.”
“Trump’s remarks about a nuclear South Korea ... run contrary to Seoul’s upstanding position as a member of the non-proliferation regime,” Victor Cha, professor at Georgetown and senior adviser and Korea chairperson at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in a recent editorial in the Korea JoongAng Daily. He added: “I cannot think of a single action that could do more harm to all South Korea has developed since its founding.”
And fears over the impact of a Trump presidency go beyond diplomatic and military concerns to economic ones.
“Trump’s impact on the Korean peninsula would be much worse than Hillary Clinton’s,” said Kim Young-moo, deputy director of the international relations bureau for President Park Geun-hye’s Saenuri Party.
“If Hillary Clinton wins the race there won’t be much difference compared to the Obama administration. But as you know, Trump is against the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] and all of the [free-trade agreement] between Korea and the US, so it would be much worse than Hillary Clinton.”
But even if Trump doesn’t win, some worry his rhetoric has already struck a chord that’s going to resonate for years, one that may be difficult for a Clinton administration to ignore. And then there’s the psychological impact.
“There is a joke in South Korea that South Korea should have voting rights in the American presidential election,” said Seong-Hyon Lee, a research fellow at the non-profit think tank the Sejong Institute, “because who becomes America’s next president will have so much influence on South Korea as well”.
South Koreans worried about shifts in American identity, as exemplified by the Trump phenomenon, because South Korea’s own identity partly depended upon American identity, Lee said. He said that as the US had introduced democracy, Christianity and market economy values to South Korea, America was something of a role model for many Koreans.
“You get nervous when your role model changes and gradually transforms into something else,” Lee said, adding that Trump’s America was “something less virtuous, less respectable, and more self-centered, more racially discriminative” and worse still, something that “is not a one-time event, but reflects the degenerative evolution of America as a whole. And that’s something other recently democratised nations also fear”.
David Volodzko is the national editor at the Korea JoongAng Daily