Political News

What's at stake in Trump's North Korea summit is bigger than we think

Posted June 11, 2018 10:36 a.m. EDT

— The biggest moment in decades on the Korean peninsula -- the on-again, off-again summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un -- is just hours away from happening in Singapore.

It's being covered like a monumental event, with news networks from around the world flooding the region to soak up every second of the historic meeting. But how is the average person in the region processing the summit -- and what it might mean for not just the Korean peninsula but the world?

To get that and a few other questions answered, I reached out to my longtime friend Elise Hu, an NPR reporter living and working in Seoul. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below. (And make sure to also listen to her preview of the Singapore summit.)

Cillizza: How closely are people on the Korean peninsula following this summit? And has interest in it picked up as it's drawn closer?

Hu: South Koreans are a pretty news-savvy and connected people. They are definitely following the summit closely. Even with local elections coming up next week, the stories topping the "most clicked" list on Naver, which is South Korea's major blog and news portal, are mostly related to the summit.

Major broadcasters have special programming throughout the day, prime-time show anchors reporting from Singapore, and two journalists from KBS, a big network, got DEPORTED from Singapore this weekend for trespassing because they got too close to the North Korean ambassador's house when trying to get footage. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his administration have constantly argued that the US-North Korea summit, not the inter-Korean ones, will be where the most important deal will be made because North Korea believes the security threat is from the US, not South Korea.

I have to say for this question and everything going forward: South Koreans are, of course, not monolithic. There's a broad spectrum of opinion, so this is an overall take. I did answer these questions together with my South Korean interpreter and assistant, Se Eun Gong, so big shout-out to her.

Cillizza: Give me a sketch of what the average person in South Korea would say about Kim Jong Un. What about Trump?

Hu: So, it's interesting. As I've written about -- older generations of South Koreans, who grew up in a real Cold War mentality, were educated to demonize North Koreans. Textbooks taught that North Koreans were beasts and had horns growing out of their heads, seriously. While leaders aren't demonized in that way anymore, Kim is still a figure many South Koreans find inscrutable, terrifying -- and yet because of his appearance, that seems to soften his image. After the summit, public opinion surveys here show South Koreans find Kim's pivot to be a lot more believable. So now he is increasingly perceived as a young, foreign-educated leader who has genuinely set his mind on economic development of his country.

On Trump, Moon has really endeavored to make sure that Trump's role in landing at this diplomatic moment is important. More broadly, the broader public reacts to Trump with puzzlement and amusement. The previous persona of US presidents in the minds of people in my region was that they were more studied or well-mannered. South Koreans fear that his unpredictable character and unprecedented policies can really cost South Korea -- whether in trade, diplomacy or security -- and also find his attitude or seeming lack of sincerity worrying.

Cillizza: How much coverage, broadly speaking, is there of Trump (and his tweets) in the region? Do people follow him closely?

Hu: Just as it is in the US, some communities and people follow him closely. Others don't. Last week I told my Pilates instructor I was going to Singapore next week for the summit and she said, "Oh, the summit is in Singapore?"

Cillizza: Is there excitement about the summit itself? Trepidation? Something else?

Hu: There's a lot of hope and excitement about the summit. Part of it may be wishful thinking because South Koreans want it to be a success, and government and media are cautiously optimistic, given that Kim really seems committed to make some kind of deal. If there is trepidation, and of course there is, people don't want to think about it. A Blue House official said today on background, "I don't even want to think about the possibility" of the summit failing.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "In a week's time, the average South Korean will be talking about ___________." Now, explain.

Hu: For the news junkies, probably a mix of the outcomes of the summit ... and what opening up the North Korean economy would look like, because that can produce amusing visuals. South Korean Twitter has already debated which burger joint would be the first to open in Pyongyang. South Koreans are also big travelers, so on social media some are imagining where they might be able to go once exchanges open up, like Instagramming photos of Pyongyang.