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[News focus] In Korea, even a US president can be branded pro-NK

While the jury is still out on the impact of US President Donald Trump’s excursion to the inter-Korean border, some staunch conservatives in South Korea are reacting with extreme responses.

On Sunday, Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom, where he stepped across the Military Demarcation Line. He became the first sitting US president to set foot in North Korea. 

US President Donald Trump steps over the Military Demarcation Line that separates the two Koreas at Panmunjom on Sunday as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gestures him over. Donald Trump’s Twitter account
US President Donald Trump steps over the Military Demarcation Line that separates the two Koreas at Panmunjom on Sunday as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gestures him over. Donald Trump’s Twitter account

Some internet users, particularly those on right-wing websites, have accused Trump of staging a show to aid his reelection campaign. Others claim Trump is being used by President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim, whom they claim are conspiring together.

Some have gone so far as to refer to the US president as “jongbuk.” The term is commonly translated into English as “pro-North Korea,” but it has deeper implications in Korean society. The Chinese character for “jong” means to follow or to serve, while that for “buk” means north, referring to North Korea in this case.

Similar comments have been posted on the website of the two-seat Our Republican Party.

Most of the party’s supporters are believed to be elderly people who adhere to nationalistic conservative ideals associated with the era of former President Park Chung-hee, the father of impeached President Park Geun-hye.

Although the party claims to stand for conservative ideals, it is more widely known for its support of Park Geun-hye, and its supporters who wave the South Korean and US flags at rallies.

“The (Moon) administration is basically pro-North Korea, just look at Im Jong-seok. What I wanted was for the US to handle North Korea, and set Moon Jae-in right, but I don’t know any more,” Kim, a retiree and self-proclaimed “true conservative,” who was at Gwanghwamun Square on Wednesday, told The Korea Herald.

His companion, an older man who declined to be named, said that anyone who has good relations with North Korea cannot be trusted.

“I don’t know what Trump is thinking, but I have to agree that he is using North Korea for his election campaign, and that nothing (related to North Korean denuclearization) will come about under this (Moon’s) administration.”

Im Jong-seok is a former chief of staff to President Moon Jae-in and a high profile student activist-turned-politician.

In appointing Im, Moon was heavily criticized by the right wing, and there were unfounded claims that Im would be masterminding North Korea policies behind the scenes.

Although far more reserved, mainstream conservatives are also reacting to Trump’s visit and comments.

“The weapons have our people and territory within their range, and (the US president) saying that they are of little concern as they do not threaten the mainland US is a serious security crisis,” Rep. Na Kyung-won, floor leader of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, said at a party meeting on Monday.

Na was referring to Trump’s comment that the missiles North Korea fired in May are small weapons that “practically every country has,” downplaying their significance.

Meanwhile, Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn has drawn criticism from some conservatives for saying that Trump’s meeting with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone has significance in and of itself.

Experts -- even some of the more conservative among mainstream commentators -- say the meeting has significance, though its impact on US-North Korea and inter-Korean talks remains to be seen.

Konyang University professor emeritus Kim Tae-woo, a former head of the Korea Institute for National Unification -- known for his criticism of the Moon administration’s national security policies -- said the meeting was “positive in that it breathed vitality into nuclear talks that have remained at a standstill since Hanoi.”

Some point to Pyongyang’s desperation as a factor in the realization of the inter-border meeting.

“It could be an indication that the North is desperate, that they have a strong desire to get out of the current situation,” Chun Young-woo, a former senior secretary for national security to former President Lee Myung-bak, said.

He added that although the North is likely desperate, it is unclear whether Kim’s coming to meet Trump has any implications on Pyongyang changing its stance.

He went on to criticize the Moon administration, saying the president “doesn’t know the nuclear issue at all” and that Seoul does not have the power to persuade Pyongyang on related matters.

Some US experts, however, have raised concerns that the meeting would be exploited by North Korea as propaganda aimed at its people.

“What Trump is oblivious to is that it helps legitimize Kim Jong-un, with Trump appearing the supplicant to ‘Dear Leader’ in the eyes of North Koreans,” Robert Manning, resident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said in an email, adding that Trump crossing the MDL was a “spectacular historical stunt.”

By Choi He-suk (