Dear President Trump…
What would South Koreans say if they could talk to you, one-on-one?
A few hours before Donald Trump, with First Lady Melania and his presidential entourage, landed in South Korea on Tuesday, I was talking to a group of middle school students in Seoul, huddled in front of a theater on a school fieldtrip. “I didn’t even know he was coming,” a couple of them exclaimed, before their teacher whisked them away from the prying reporter.
“Stop living like that!” said Song Soobin, a 19-year-old dance major, when I asked her what she would say if it were Trump standing in front of her, instead of me. “I just don’t like him. I hear so many negative things about him from the news and on Facebook. If he were here I wouldn’t talk to him.”
But most regular South Koreans wouldn’t forego the opportunity to talk directly to the most powerful man in the world. Public reaction to him in South Korea ranges widely, from extreme adoration to intense animosity, with a majority of people oscillating between mild concern, amusement and indifference.
This is Trump’s first visit to South Korea as president. It comes at a time of — sorry for being a broken record — heightened tensions with North Korea and rhetorical crossfire between Kim Jong-un and Trump. More people are talking about war, even in South Korea, and the rock-hard foundation that seemed to be the South Korean-U.S. alliance is showing fissures, especially with Trump pushing for renegotiation of the two countries’ five-year free trade agreement.
Korea Exposé talked to citizens in Seoul who had something to communicate to Trump. The U.S. president will probably not read this. But, in the wild hope that he does (maybe we should tweet this article at him), here are South Koreans calling “Dear President Trump,” edited for clarity:
Park Moo-duk (76), owner of fruit store Jeil Sanghoe for 40 years
Dear President Trump,
Uh, what should I say…. You speak too roughly. I think sometimes your words are too rash, too hateful. We’re always at the back, watching you anxiously.
I hope there’s no conflict. Kim Jong-un’s words are too rough, and Trump’s words are too rough. South Koreans watch and we think, well, they’re just gonna stop at the verbal battle.
The U.S. is not evil. It helped us a lot when South Korea was hungry [in the 1950s and 60s]. But I hope you can act with more sensitivity. Work to solidify the relationship between the U.S. and us in South Korea. Rely on compromise, not force and conflict. I’m always worried.
It’s more difficult for us, because South Korea is a weak and small country, in between powerful nations.
Kim Kang-ryung (24), freelance writer and contributor to Brunch Magazine
Dear President Trump,
I don’t really have anything to say. I hear from others, “Trump is trash, Trump promotes inhumane policies,” but I haven’t really looked deeply myself. I don’t exactly know what you’re doing.
I haven’t really felt a difference in my own life since you became president…. Even [the prospect of] war isn’t something I react sensitively to. It seems like a faraway tale.
Kim Young-sook (56), owner of Uri supermarket for 17 years
Dear President Trump,
If you’re president of the U.S., you’re president of the world. I want to know how you’re going to fulfill your duty to the world, as president of it.
As a South Korean, I hope that this visit can give you a better understanding of South Korea, and allow you to have more affection for our country. Our country is small, but there’s a lot of things to be proud of.
South Korea’s relationship with North Korea is a huge problem, right? How do you want the issue to be resolved? Well, first of all, there cannot be a war on the Korean Peninsula. How are you going to work through this wisely? Sometimes I get anxious because you’re too aggressive. I’m not saying Kim Jong-un does good or anything, but please approach the problem more wisely.
Now we all have to accept that you are elected as president. Honestly, my customers didn’t react so positively to that. But South Korea and the U.S. should bring our strengths together, and create something good.
Noh Gong-jin (15), middle school student
Dear President Trump,
Please value South Koreans. The U.S. and South Korea have had good relations for years. Let’s sustain this good relationship.
It’s a problem that South Korea is too weak. It’s so depressing that if war does break out, it would happen and end on the Korean Peninsula, and we would be the ones who got killed. We want to be a stronger country, but we can’t, and that’s depressing too.
If I ever got to meet you, I’d like to tell you: Please value the lives of South Koreans.
Noh’s plea is poignant against the backdrop of claims that Donald Trump is dismissive of South Korean lives — an attitude that is not going unnoticed inside South Korea, a country of 51 million people.
“If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong-un], it will be over there,” Republican senator Lindsey Graham told the Today show, claiming that this is what Trump told him.
“If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And he has told me that to my face.”
During Trump’s visit, at least 100 Trump-related rallies have been reported to the police in Seoul alone, both for and against him. The Blue House, before being kind enough to release to the press the details of the menu that the Trumps will dine on at their first dinner here, urged South Koreans to welcome Trump warmly as a guest. Over 15,000 police are stationed in downtown Seoul to prevent clashes between pro- and anti-Trump protesters.
Although anti-U.S. rallies have typically occurred when heads of state visited, the level of animosity is more palpable vis-a-vis the Trumps. The majority of South Koreans wanted Hillary Clinton as president, according to a 2016 Gallup Korea survey, and Trump’s recent war rhetoric isn’t helping diffuse public anxiety.
“Ultimately, it will all work out,” Trump said on Tuesday, shortly after landing in South Korea. Hopefully, “it” does, without sacrificing innocent lives along the way — whether they be South Korean, North Korean, or American.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article erroneously quoted Sen. Graham as saying, “If thousands die, they’re going to die over here.” The last word has been corrected to “there.”
All photographs were taken by Haeryun Kang for Korea Exposé.