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What South Korea’s Moon has but Trump does not: A sky-high approval rating

President Trump welcomes South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House during a June 2017 visit. (REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo)

President Trump will meet his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, at the White House on Tuesday. When they talk, both men will likely express their ongoing hopes for negotiations with North Korea.

But the two leaders are coming at that shared goal from much different political positions: While Trump's approval numbers are mired in the low 40s, Moon's approval stands at 75 percent of South Koreans, according to one poll published last week. Moon may be the most domestically popular leader of any major democratic nation.

There's good reason to believe that Moon's handling of potential talks with North Korea — and, with that, his handling of Trump — has helped boost those numbers. Polling firms such as Gallup Korea and Realmeter showed that Moon's approval rating shot up to record highs after his summit with Kim Jong Un in the demilitarized zone on April 27.

One poll conducted for television channel MBC shortly after the summit found that 89 percent of South Koreans thought the event had been a success; 78 percent even said they viewed North Korea's Kim as trustworthy. Remarkably, this would suggest that many South Korean conservatives, historically skeptical of engagement with the Kim dynasty, were optimistic about talks.

That positivity appears to have fallen off in the weeks since the summit, if only slightly. But things could get much worse. North Korea unexpectedly canceled an official meeting with South Korea last week, which could well boost the worries of the country's conservatives. But, on the whole, polls do suggest a cautious optimism will remain among South Koreans.

In the United States, Trump's approval ratings have been fairly low for much of his presidency. But they have trended slightly upward in the first half of 2018, according to the website FiveThirtyEight's polling tracker, and North Korea may now be a positive for the president. Polls have shown majority approval for the plan to meet Kim, and many voters have expressed confidence in Trump's handling of the summit.

Trump is also unpopular in South Korea, and the two nations have a number of points of contention outside the North Korean threat. But Moon has found common ground with his American counterpart by flattering Trump publicly. In January, as North Korea indicated it was open to talks with South Korea, Moon said that Trump deserved “huge credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks.” Last month, he suggested that Trump should win the lauded Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

At least some of this praise seems to have come at the behest of Trump himself, according to U.S. officials, suggesting that the American president is eager for a diplomatic win ahead of unfavorable odds in midterm elections.

However, it remains to be seen if Trump and Moon can keep the goodwill going before the U.S.-North Korea summit on June 12. Indeed, Trump has begun to view the event more tentatively after North Korea canceled its meeting with South Korean officials last week and issued a caustic criticism of White House national security adviser John Bolton. And although Trump may hope a successful summit in Singapore may boost his approval ratings, we can't say the same for Kim.

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