It’s no secret U.S. President Donald Trump can sometimes be nicer to his country's perceived enemies than its friends. But Trump’s unorthodox negotiating style appears to be wearing thin in South Korea, especially among conservatives, who are increasingly willing to criticize the U.S. leader.
In recent weeks there has been a small but notable backlash among South Korean conservatives, traditionally the most reliably pro-U.S. contingent, as Trump continues to flatter North Korean leader Kim Jong Un while pressuring South Korea's government over military cost-sharing negotiations.
It’s not a new strategy. Trump has praised his “friend” Kim for more than a year, as he tries to convince the North Korean leader to give up his nuclear weapons. But with talks stalled yet again and Kim intensifying provocations against Seoul, some in South Korea are losing patience.
Earlier this month, South Korean human rights activists accused Trump of ignoring North Korean human rights abuses when he praised Kim’s “great and beautiful vision for his country.”
Some conservatives express concern that Trump is giving Kim too much latitude to develop weapons by saying he has “no problem” with North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches. Though short-range, the missiles can reach anywhere in South Korea.
Others were alarmed when Trump again agreed with North Korea's characterization of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, calling them “ridiculous and expensive.”
‘He does not know...his enemy from his friend’
But the tipping point for some came earlier this month when Trump reportedly used an Asian accent to mock South Korea for allegedly agreeing to pay more for protection from the North.
“It was easier to get a billion dollars from South Korea than to get $114.13 from a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn,” Trump boasted, according to the Manhattan-based New York Post newspaper. “And believe me, those 13 cents were very important.”
The conservative Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, was furious, running an editorial titled: “Trump's Attitude to U.S.-Korea Alliance Is Alarming.”
“No other U.S. president has insulted South Koreans like that,” the editorial read. “Certainly not by alluding to his grubby past as a slum landlord.”
Rep. Cho Kyoung-tae, a senior member of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, told a local radio station Trump’s comments raise questions about whether the United States is a trustworthy, friendly country, according to the Yonhap news agency.
“With the mindset of a merchant, a businessman, he does not know his ass from his elbow, his enemy from his friend,” Cho said.
Rep. Ha Tae-keung of the minor opposition Bareunmirae Party, which is made up of both liberals and conservatives, recently called Trump “totally thoughtless,” saying his “reckless” remarks threaten the U.S.-South Korea alliance, Yonhap reported.
South Korean conservatives generally support a tougher posture toward Pyongyang. They have long been skeptical about Trump’s talks with North Korea, since they believe Kim is unlikely to surrender his nuclear weapons, says Park Won-gon, a professor at South Korea’s Handong Global University.
“In spite of that, Trump keeps saying positive things about Kim, which makes conservative groups angrier,” Park says.
Human rights concerns
Others are concerned Trump is neglecting North Korean human rights abuses, and question the wisdom of praising a leader who oversees a vast network of political prisons and forced labor camps.
“A beautiful vision for his country...are you out of your mind, @realDonaldTrump?” tweeted Yeonmi Park, who fled North Korea in 2007 and is now a human rights activist.
“I feel disgusted” when Trump calls Kim his friend, says Hu Kang-il of the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea, a Seoul-based non-government organization.
“Mr. Trump exploits the matter for his popularity. He is a political merchant,” Hu says.
Small but noteworthy backlash
For now, the anti-Trump backlash is small. But it’s noteworthy, since overt criticism of the United States is relatively rare in South Korea. According to a 2018 Pew Research poll, 80 percent of South Koreans have a favorable view of the United States.
And though that same poll suggested just 44 percent of South Koreans have confidence in Trump, most politicians still don’t directly criticize the U.S. president, in part because both conservatives and liberals still largely claim Trump as an ally.
South Korea’s liberal president, Moon Jae-in, who has prioritized talks with North Korea, says Trump deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his talks with Kim.
“You really are the peacemaker of the Korean Peninsula,” Moon told Trump in June, ahead of Trump’s third meeting with Kim.
Many conservatives also still publicly praise Trump, pointing out he has kept tough international sanctions on North Korea, despite talking with Kim.
Alliance strong but strained
But although the U.S.-South Korea alliance remains strong, it could be strained for as long as Trump remains president, warn analysts, noting that Trump has criticized South Korea for decades.
In a 1990 interview with Playboy magazine, Trump mentioned South Korea in a list of “so-called allies” that are “ripping off” the United States.
In recent years, Trump has only increased his complaints that South Korea and other allies aren’t paying enough for the cost of U.S. troops on their soil. At a May rally in Florida, Trump said a certain country was "rich as hell and probably doesn't like us too much." The comments were widely seen as referring to South Korea.
Earlier this month, in an apparent attempt to preempt cost-sharing negotiations with Seoul, Trump tweeted that South Korea agreed to pay “substantially more money” for the cost of the U.S. military presence. Seoul shot back, saying cost-sharing negotiations hadn’t even yet begun.
South Korean officials have also expressed confusion about Trump’s inaccurate statements regarding the most basic aspects of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
In February, Trump said there are 40,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. Earlier this month, Trump put the number at 32,000. In reality, there about 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea, according to the Pentagon.
This month, Trump complained the United States gets “virtually nothing” from South Korea, even though Washington has been helping Seoul “for about 82 years.” It’s not clear where Trump got the figure, as the Korean War was from 1950-53.
Despite those comments, lower level U.S.-South Korean ties remain strong, with South Korean and U.S. officials regularly stressing the vitality of the relationship.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance "is ironclad and remains the linchpin of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia," U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said during a visit to Seoul this month.
Trump, too, insisted in an early August tweet that the “relationship between the countries is a very good one!”
Trump an anomaly -- for now
For now, Trump is an anomaly -- the main disruptive influence in an otherwise solid relationship.
But there may come a point where more South Koreans begin pushing back on Trump, says Jeffrey Robertson, a professor who specializes in South Korean diplomacy at Yonsei University.
“Anti-Americanism has deep roots in South Korea. It swings like a pendulum and will return sooner or later - on both the progressive and conservative side,” Robertson says.
There may come a point where more South Koreans say "enough is enough," says Robertson. “And the recent comments may be the start of that point.”