South Koreans Hopeful Peace Will Prevail

South Koreans are optimistic that U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will improve the prospects for a lasting peace in the region when the two men meet Tuesday in Singapore, even if no definitive denuclearization deal is reached.

“What we want is peace. I wish that the summit works out well so that peace comes to the Korean Peninsula,” said Cho Ik-Sung, a doctor who lives in Seoul.

Public support

Prior to the Singapore meeting between Trump and Kim, there have been rallies in Seoul by groups urging the two leaders to end the U.S.-North Korea nuclear standoff with a peace treaty.

Conservative groups have also held demonstrations, urging the U.S. not to compromise with the repressive Kim government that has broken previous denuclearization promises.

But public opinion polls indicate strong support for progressive South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s diplomatic efforts to persuade the North Korean leader to agree to denuclearization talks. Moon’s approval rating was at 75 percent in a recent Gallup poll.

Kim’s popularity in South Korea also increased significantly after the inter-Korean summit in April, where he was seen by many as nonthreatening and open to compromise.

“Regarding Chairman Kim Jong Un, I used to have a negative impression of him, but after seeing him on TV at the last summit, my impression of him improved a lot,” Seoul resident Choi Yun-mi said.

Kim’s approval rating increased 10 points, to 31 percent overall, in the Gallup poll.

In advance of the summit, the U.S. president’s favorability rating in South Korea rose 8 points, to 32 percent.

Trump had in the past raised anxiety among South Koreans with threats to use military force if needed to eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat, suggestions that he may withdraw U.S. troops in Korea unless Seoul increases defense contributions, and criticisms over unfair trade practices.

Summit anxiety

Many in Seoul still worry that the U.S. and North Korea will not be able to resolve their differences, as Washington wants complete denuclearization before any sanctions relief, and Pyongyang wants concessions tied to each phase of the process.

After temporarily pulling out of the summit earlier, Trump has said he still is prepared to walk away if Kim is not committed to ending his nuclear program.

“I am concerned that the United States might cancel the U.S.-North Korea summit again,” said Shim Nu-ri, a teacher who lives in Seoul.

But, overall, people in Seoul expect the Singapore summit to produce a positive result that will lower the potential for military conflict, and move the peace process forward.

Trump has said he believes Kim is committed to denuclearization and that Kim “wants to do something great for his people.” But the president also tempered summit expectations by saying the Singapore meeting will likely be the beginning of a longer process. 

At the April inter-Korean summit, Moon and Kim agreed to improve relations by holding military talks to reduce border tensions, and hold reunions for families separated by the long-standing division of Korea. 

There are also signs that South Korea, China and Russia are preparing to increase economic ties with North Korea, should a nuclear deal be reached. Such a move would ease the tough international sanctions in place that ban 90 percent of trade with North Korea.

Officials from South Korea visited a shuttered joint economic project in Kaesong, North Korea, on Friday, possibly in preparation to reopen the site that was closed in 2016 following a North Korean nuclear test. 

And in the Chinese-North Korean border city of Dandong, property prices are rapidly rising in anticipation that official trade will resume.

Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.

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