Mon, May 08, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Worries about US president dominate South Korean elections

By Choe Sang-hun  /  NY Times News Service, SEOUL

A hostile, nuclear-armed neighbor with heavy artillery aimed at their capital. Cronyism in government. Corruption in business.

These issues and more are weighing on South Koreans as they head to a presidential election on Tuesday, but much of the campaign has revolved around a wild card, one the candidates are fighting to prove they are uniquely equipped to handle: US President Donald Trump.

In his first months in office, Trump’s contradictory statements about the Korean Peninsula have shattered South Koreans’ image of the US leader as a symbol of stability in their 60-year alliance with Washington.

Trump has threatened to end what he called a “horrible” free-trade agreement with South Korea.

He has said the nation should pay for an advanced US missile defense system, contradicting an earlier commitment from Washington.

He has warned of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea, while also saying he would be “honored” to meet with the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, under the right circumstances.

How to manage “the Trump risk,” as local news media put it, has become a major campaign issue. The candidates are falling over themselves to show they would be the best at handling him, either by drawing him closer or by being tougher.

“National security has become a dominant election issue this year thanks largely to Trump,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “Whether he intended it or not, Trump ended up intervening in the South Korean election.”

At the least, many South Koreans fear a rift in the close relationship with Washington. At worst, some fear Trump could do something impulsive, like ordering a military attack on North Korea, with little regard for the devastation it would cause here in the South.

The leading conservative candidate, Hong Joon-pyo, sought to calm jitters by swearing that if he is elected, he will hold a summit meeting with Trump aboard the USS Carl Vinson, the aircraft carrier Trump recently dispatched to Korean waters in a show of force against the North.

Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist, has pushed what he sees as his advantage over other candidates: He and Trump both went to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

He says that connection will help him build rapport with Trump.

Moon Jae-in, the Democratic Party candidate, who surveys project will be the winner, has also vowed to meet Trump in one of his first acts as president.

However, he indicated that he would be more confrontational.

He has said that instead of avoiding friction with Washington, South Korea should “learn to say no.”

He and many South Korean voters have been outraged by Trump’s recent suggestion that their nation pay US$1 billion for a missile-defense battery the US installed last week.

Moon asked a cheering crowd at a campaign rally this week: “Which candidate can do a proud diplomacy, saying what we need to say to the Americans?”

Moon represents liberal political forces in South Korea who say that under its conservative and pro-US leaders, the nation’s alliance has become too “hierarchical” and too “tilted” in Washington’s favor.

Liberals have also called for dialogue with North Korea, saying that Trump was wasting his time if he was waiting for China to enforce UN sanctions forcefully enough to stop the North’s nuclear program.

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