AS the world pulls apart the small print and draws its pessimistic conclusions of the Trump-Kim agreement signed at Tuesday’s historic summit, the people who seem the most optimistic about the meeting are those with possibly the most at stake – South Koreans.
While pundits across the globe have criticised the vague wording and lack of any concrete commitments in the so-called Sentosa Agreement, the South Koreans who were in Singapore at the time had a different take. Most could only take relief and encouragement from the seemingly affable connection between these most unpredictable of leaders.
“It is vague and there’s not a lot of detail but we still think it’s a significant improvement in the relationship between the two sides,” South Korean reporter Lee Ji-won told Asian Correspondent.
“People are optimistic and happy about yesterday. Everyone is happy about it, not satisfied with everything, but we are looking forward to whatever is going to come in the future.”
For commentators, the devil is in the detail with the Trump agreement. However, for South Koreans who have been living under the threat of North Korea for decades, anything short of a complete disaster is encouraging and a step in the right direction. Far from being just about America and North Korea, yesterday was another sign that peace for the peninsula could be on the horizon.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment because we’ve been divided for almost 70 years,” said South Korean pundit Moon Young Oh.
“It wasn’t our intention to be separated… the ideologies – communism and capitalism – forced them to separate but now there’s a slight hope that we can be reunited again. This fact makes South Koreans overwhelmed.”
Everyone agrees that dialogue is the only way the Korean peninsula will achieve peace, which is the top concern for most South Koreans. As a peace treaty was never signed, the Korean War technically never ended and instead stayed at a stalemate after an armistice was signed in 1953.
While this has kept both sides at a tenuous stand-off, it hasn’t stopped Pyongyang from threatening South Korea with its ever-growing arsenal.
Now that North Korea is a nuclear power, these threats have taken on a new level of gravity that doesn’t sit easily with South Koreans, especially with the capital Seoul just miles away from the border and within easy range of North Korean missiles.
An April survey by South Korean polling firm Realmeter found that nearly 79 percent of South Koreans favoured the prospect of a peace agreement between the two Korean nations, with only 14.5 percent opposed to the potential treaty. A strong majority of support for the possible agreement also remained across both geographic and age breakdowns.
Many have accepted that the prospect of peace now comes hand in hand with an acceptance of Kim Jong Un, and America fostering good relations with him can only benefit this process. The hope is, if the safety of Kim’s regime is secured, the threats on South Korea will stop. Any talks with America, and their now promised “security guarantees,” work towards this.
When asked if he would be happy for the US to guarantee the regime – or complete, verifiable, irreversible guarantee of security or CVIG – producer for Korean Broadcasting Systems Dong Yeol Kim said, “Yes, of course!”
“The Korean peninsula was at a big risk of going to war last year. The most important thing for Koreans is peace in the peninsula and no war threats. If that’s what it takes to get that, then do it.”
Despite the support for the possible agreement, South Koreans still remain largely skeptical of the North Korean regime’s sincerity. A Korea Gallup poll last month indicated that 64 percent of South Koreans think North Korea will never give up its nuclear programme, with a similar percentage from another poll showing distrust for the North Korean regime.
But after yesterday’s performance from Trump, that mistrust and lack of faith could be swinging more towards the US president that their neighbour to the north.
In his press conference after the signing of the agreement, Trump announced an end to military exercises, or “war games” as he called them, with South Korea. A statement that seemingly took both his own military and Seoul by surprise.
While this off-the-cuff unilateral decision making has some experts labelling Trump as unreliable, it hasn’t dampened Lee’s hope of reaching a lasting peace agreement and is, in her opinion, actually a good move.
“It is the right path to take if we really want to unify with North Korea later on and maintain this good relationship,” she said.
“As Trump said… It can be seen as a threat to North Korea. If they feel threatened by the joint military drills, then [cancelling them] is something we have to consider.”
Having lived under the prospect of a North Korean military threat for over half a century, South Koreans are well aware of the pitfalls in dealing with their northern counterpart. However, many South Koreans value the significance of the dialogue that is finally opening up with what has largely been an isolated regime, both in talks with the US and the inter-Korea summit back in April.
Despite the criticism and failings of yesterday’s agreement, Lee has a simple answer when asked if she’s hopeful for the future – “Yes.”