Peace at last? South Koreans hopeful ahead of summit

NEW YORK, April 25 (UPI) — South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s summit with Kim Jong Un is an easy sell, welcome relief for South Koreans who have long lived under the North Korean threat, experts told UPI ahead of Friday’s
historic meeting.

Even as skeptics who question Kim’s ultimate intentions are dominating the conversation in the United States, South Korean analysts with expertise in Korea’s politics and mass culture say the summit may feel long overdue for South Koreans, who not too long ago were being subjected to evacuation drills in central Seoul.

Park Jae-hang, a senior advertising executive with Havas Korea in Seoul, and previously with Cheil Communications, said the summit with Kim and the suspension of North Korea missile disturbances do not need an explanation or a glossy promotion — although Seoul turned heads last week with a new slogan, “Peace, A New Start,” for the upcoming summit.

“There’s no need for a hard sell,” Park said. “This product called ‘peace’ was something so many people wanted for such a long time but wasn’t available. There’s no need to promote it so vigorously.”

Park also said he welcomes the summit and the engagement with the North.

The relief North Korea engagement provides to South Koreans has also shifted the focus to the meeting’s potential upside, and away from the prospect of concessions the wealthier South may need to make to get North Korea on the track to denuclearization.

The South previously planned to offer $1 billion in economic aid to the North in 2007, and former President Kim Dae-jung, the first South Korean leader to publicly meet with Kim Jong Il, secured the meeting with a controversial payment of $500 million in 2000.

South Koreans may also be more willing to see a nuclear North Korea as a problem to be managed, rather than confronted, because of the harsh consequences of conflict.

Oh Young-jin, who once worked as an aide to former President Roh Moo-hyun and writes a column for The Korea Times in Seoul, said there’s hope and fear ahead of the meetings.

“Ahead of the third inter-Korea summit we are more cautious than the previous two summits,” Oh said. “We are less excited, but on the back of our minds is also the thirst or uncontrollable desire for lasting peace.

“If this summit can gain us two years of peace free from the fear of war it should be qualified as a success, whether North Korea’s nuclear programs are eliminated or not.”

Oh also said he credits U.S. President Donald Trump and Moon for the shift in North Korea’s direction.

“Since Trump’s inauguration, my thought was if there was any U.S. president who could handle and settle the North Korean problem, it should be Trump,” Oh said. “My expectation has proved right.”

Trump’s fiery rhetoric combined with Moon’s “persistent, reconciliatory policy” has given rise to a different kind of momentum on the peninsula, Oh said, one that came from the “realization that this could really lead to a major war.”

“The beauty of having two summits with Kim, first with Moon then Trump, is that there’s a possibility for the United States and South Korea to address North Korean problems,” Oh said.

As the summits advance, Kim could be persuaded to take concrete steps toward denuclearization, Oh said.

Park said the branded message of hope Seoul wants to convey is working for multiple reasons, and not just because South Koreans are thirsty for peace.

Most South Koreans appear to trust Moon, with his approval rating at 67.8 percent in the third week of April, according to Realmeter.

South Koreans also live in a country where consumer tastes, preferences and political leanings are all determined in what Park described as a “communication-intensive society,” where “peer pressure to do what surrounding people are doing runs strong.”

“Mainstream tastes in music or trends, spread faster in Korea, and socially, through friends, because of the need to keep up,” Park said. “The way things go viral, the peer pressure, also applies to politics.”

Moon’s support base has not waned because of the social networks that rose to prominence with his presidential campaign in 2017.

The tribe-like networks that spread through mobile communication apps like Kakao Talk have not diminished significantly even as the South Korean president makes bold moves, like a summit with the North Korean dictator at Panmunjom, or an online comment-rigging scandal involving his Democratic Party.

But without the public’s trust, Moon’s support can erode as it did with his predecessor.

“Former President Park Geun-hye had so forgotten the importance of keeping the public’s trust, those disaffected with her presidency grew a base of support for Moon,” Park said.

Park Geun-hye was impeached for her involvement in a corruption scandal and was blamed widely for not doing more during the sinking of the ferry ship Sewol in 2014.

But any erosion of trust in Moon remains a remote possibility, for now, because of South Korean beliefs about what to do with North Korea.

“Fighting, or being hawkish on North Korea doesn’t work,” Park said, referring to a commonly held view in the South. “It must be transcended, and I think the government has overcome that.”