In South Korea's Presidential Election, A Referendum On U.S. Relations

May 1, 2017
Originally published on May 2, 2017 12:23 am

At a pro-U.S. rally in central Seoul over the weekend, supporters of impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye chanted for the destruction of their enemy, North Korea. They've formed an encampment outside City Hall, where they express support for Park and the U.S., and criticize left-wing politicians.

Park was removed from office in March, a first in South Korea's history. She goes on trial Tuesday for corruption, and faces life in prison if convicted. On May 9, there's a presidential election to replace her.

At the polls, South Koreans are expected to punish Park's fellow conservatives, and elect a liberal instead. The vote also has become a referendum on U.S. relations — about how close South Koreans want to be with the United States.

Park is an icon of South Korea's conservative establishment. Her backers tend to be older, Christian, conservative and pro-U.S. — people who lived through the 1950-'53 Korean War as children.

"The communist threat is still high. We need the U.S. to defend us," said Lee Seung-won, 74, who wore Army fatigues and buttons with a Christian cross and U.S. and South Korean flags. "Younger generations don't realize it, but if we replace Park with a liberal, we're risking our future."

A liberal, however, is leading in the polls: Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer who wants dialogue with North Korea, and possibly cooler relations with Washington.

Protesters clashed with riot police last week in Seongju, a rural southeastern region of South Korea, where the U.S. military is installing a defense system designed to shoot down North Korean missiles. An increasing number of South Koreans are opposed to it. The presidential front-runner Moon vows to renegotiate the deal.

Moon's rallies tend to draw support from younger South Koreans who've grown up in a prosperous, peaceful country. They worry less about war, and more about youth unemployment and corruption. Aside from ex-President Park, the head of Samsung, the country's biggest company, is also on trial for corruption.

"I support Mr. Moon. First of all, I believe he will not be like Ms. Park, taking money from the companies," says Choi Jihye, 23, a student. "I believe he is clean."

Park is accused of conspiring with a childhood friend to collect tens of millions of dollars in bribes from big companies. Charged with bribery, coercion and abuse of power, she faces life in prison if convicted.

Her fall from power has many South Koreans rethinking Park's policies, including the traditional, steadfast alliance with the U.S., which began in the Korean War and its aftermath, when South Korea was a much poorer nation.

Choi says she always considered herself pro-U.S., but she's worried about relations under President Trump. In recent days, Trump has said he may scrap a free trade agreement with South Korea, and has threatened to make Seoul pay for the missile defense system the U.S. military is installing. Trump also has said he's thinking about preemptive military action against Pyongyang.

"I don't know what he wants to do. Fight with North Korea? Take something from South Korea?" Choi asks. "I cannot understand what he is doing now."

North Korea may not understand either, and that may explain why it has not conducted a sixth nuclear test, as has been expected. It has previously set off five underground nuclear explosions, including two last year.

"North Korea knows Trump is no Barack Obama. It knows he could attack any day now," says Jeon Young-sun, a professor of North Korean studies at Konkuk University in Seoul. "So I think that's why North Korea is holding back on major provocations."

On Monday, North Korea said it's bolstering its nuclear program at "maximum" speed — and that only its "Supreme Leader," Kim Jong Un, will decide when the next step will come.

Jihye Lee contributed to this story.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We've been reporting about how President Trump is facing off with North Korea over the North Korean nuclear program. Well, now how some of that is playing ahead of an election next week in South Korea. That election is to replace the country's president, who was impeached late last year. She goes on trial tomorrow for corruption. That has opened up a big debate in South Korea over how close it wants to be with the United States. NPR's Lauren Frayer has the story from Seoul.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Korean).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Supporters of the impeached President Park Geun-hye chant for the destruction of their enemy North Korea. They've set up an encampment in central Seoul. They tend to be older, conservative and pro-U.S., like 74-year-old Lee Seung-won, who lived through the Korean War. He wears army fatigues and buttons with a Christian cross and U.S. and South Korean flags.

LEE SEUNG-WON: (Through interpreter) The communist threat is still high. We need the U.S. to defend us. Younger generations don't realize it, but if we replace Park with a liberal we're risking our future.

FRAYER: A liberal, however, is leading in the polls - Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer who wants dialogue with North Korea and possibly cooler relations with Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Korean).

FRAYER: Protesters clashed with riot police in a southeastern region of the Korean Peninsula last week, where the U.S. military is installing a defense system designed to shoot down North Korean missiles. An increasing number of South Koreans are opposed to it. The presidential frontrunner Moon vows to renegotiate the deal.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Korean).

FRAYER: Moon's rallies tend to draw support from younger South Koreans who've grown up in a prosperous, peaceful country. 23-year-old Choi Jihye worries less about war and more about youth unemployment and corruption. Aside from ex-President Park, the head of the country's biggest company, Samsung, is also on trial for corruption.

CHOI JIHYE: I support Mr. Moon because first of all I believe he will not do like Ms. Park, take money from the companies. I believe that he is clean.

FRAYER: She's also rethinking South Korea's heretofore steadfast friendship with the U.S., in part because of President Trump, who says he may scrap a free trade deal with South Korea and has threatened to make Seoul pay for the missile defense system the U.S. is installing here. And he's thinking about pre-emptive military action against the North.

CHOI: Trump. I didn't know what he want to do. Like, he want to fight with North Korea or take something from South Korea? I cannot understand what he is doing now.

FRAYER: North Korea may not understand either. And that may explain why it has not conducted a sixth nuclear test as has been expected, says Jeon Young-sun, a professor of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

JEON YOUNG-SUN: (Through interpreter) North Korea knows Trump is no Barack Obama. It knows he could attack any day now. So I think that's why North Korea's holding back on major provocations.

FRAYER: Today, North Korea said it's bolstering its nuclear program at maximum speed and that only its supreme leader will decide when the next step will come. South Koreans have lived with that uncertainty for decades, and now there's more uncertainty over Trump's plans. South Koreans have a lot to weigh as they go to the polls next week in an election that could complicate relations between the U.S. and one of its closest allies. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "REMINDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.