SEOUL — Just days ahead of President Trump's visit, hundreds of South Koreans took to the streets of the capital on Saturday in protest.
But not everyone was against Trump's visit: Just a few blocks away from the main anti-Trump protest by the U.S. Embassy, a smaller pro-Trump demonstration was taking place. The two events reflected the conflicting concerns in South Korea at a time when many feel the risk of conflict with North Korea is running high.
“I came here to protest because I'm afraid of a war,” said Hong Jae-pum, a 37-year-old who works for a cleaning company and was attending the anti-Trump protest. “And if a war breaks out, we all die.”
The anti-Trump protesters gathered at 4 p.m. local time to stage an event called a "No Trump, No War," dancing along to rappers and painting their faces while they listened to the gathered speakers. While the atmosphere was playful, sometimes the rhetoric wasn't: One widely distributed poster showed the U.S. president in a Nazi uniform and suggested he was preparing for an invasion of North Korea.
“We hate Trump,” went one song sang by the protesters. “We love peace. We love equality.”
Attendees said that they wanted to show the world that South Koreans were not seeking a conflict. “I want President Trump to know we do not want a war,” said Yoo Seung-hyun, a 32-year-old activist, adding that Trump needed to understand that “a lot of the problems on the Korean Peninsula depend on him.”
“I hope that Americans citizens pay attention to what's happening here,” said Kim Hyun-a, 49, a teacher who was attending the protest with her students. “War brings tragedy.”
A five-minute walk away, there was a very different message being sent: At a pro-Trump rally that had begun at 2 p.m., the president was being feted as the savior of South Korea. A far older crowd, many of whom were wearing military uniforms, could be seen waving American flags and signs that said "Welcome Trump."
Attendees were effusive in their praise for Trump, who they argued could help save ousted South Korean president Park Geun-hye, who is currently under arrest after a number of scandals. "I want Mr. Trump to destroy Kim Jong Un," said An Man-young, 70, referring to the North Korean leader. "And also release the innocent former president Park."
“I'm not very worried about Trump putting South Korea in danger,” said Beak Yong-cham, a 60-year-old who said he was a veteran of the Republic of Korea Marine Corps. “The United States would talk to the South Korean defense minister before anything happens.”
There was widespread support for military action among this relatively small crowd. “I think peace will be protected, even if you have to go to war,” said Kim Jue-yoon, 29, a mobile phone store owner.
“I support the military option against Kim Jong Un,” said Beak. “He needs to be killed because he is crazy.”
These protests were just two of a number of events planned over the next few days that reflect some of the wider divisions over Trump, who is due to arrive in Seoul on Tuesday. Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul think tank, said that there were two different views of the American president in South Korea, with a majority of people on South Korea generally welcoming his tough stance on North Korea.
“On the other hand, many also worry about the possibility of war or the use of force by the Trump administration,” Choi added.
Though Seoul police had expressed concern over the number of protests being planned, Yonhap News reported that there were no physical confrontations between opposing groups Saturday. Compared with the huge protests last winter that led to former president Park's impeachment, the events on Saturday were relatively small and there were considerably more people at a kimchi festival farther down the road than any protest related to Trump.
Polls show considerable opposition to Trump in South Korea — one recent Pew poll found that more than three-quarters of South Korean respondents consider Trump “dangerous” — but David Straub, a former State Department official and the author of a book on anti-Americanism in South Korea, said that so far the anti-Trump protests were far smaller than anti-U.S. protests that took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“I think what is really surprising right now is not that there some groups that are organizing these kinds of protest events, but how few there are,” said Straub.
South Koreans may not regard Trump “as a kind of usual American president about whom people can protest here and expect that it will do any good at all,” added Straub. “In fact, I think that most South Koreans are probably worried that protesting his visit or being too directly critical of Trump will result in him becoming very peeved and maybe saying damaging things.”
Indeed, at both pro and anti-Trump rallies on Saturday, the target of much criticism was not even the American leader himself, but his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in. But attendees said they hoped that Trump would see their protest and react.
“I think he will say something on Twitter,” said Kim, the teacher, at the anti-Trump event.
More on WorldViews