SEOUL — It’s been a topsy-turvy week on the Korean Peninsula thanks to the on-again, off-again historic summit between the U.S. president and North Korean leader.
Trump last week scrapped the highly anticipated June 12 summit, blaming North Koreans for their “open hostility.” In turn, North Koreans struck a conciliatory tone in hopes the United States would reconsider the talks. And since then, both sides have been working to try to make the meeting work.
After a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York, North Korea’s vice chairman on Friday is scheduled to travel to Washington to hand-deliver a letter from Kim to Trump.
Meanwhile, North and South Korean officials are working to increase communication between the two countries and improve their relations. On Friday, they held high-level talks to discuss improving inter-Korean relations and agreed to open a liaison office as soon as possible.
South Koreans’ attitude toward Trump and Kim vastly improved, compared with previous polls. One year ago, 9 percent of South Koreans approved of the new U.S. president, largely because they didn’t know what to expect from the political newcomer, analysts say. And 10 percent of South Koreans approved of Kim two months ago.
Now, 32 percent of South Koreans approve of Trump, who gained eight of those points in the past two months. And Kim gained 21 percentage points for a 31 percent approval rating since March, according to the Gallup Korea poll conducted May 29 to 31. Their disapproval ratings have plummeted by double digits in two months. (Moon remains highly popular here, maintaining an approval rating in the high 70s in the latest survey.)
Kim’s improved approval rating was expected. Photos and videos of Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in from their first inter-Korean summit in April telling jokes, hugging and holding hands as they crossed the line that separates the Koreas went viral and spawned endless memes on social media.
But the more remarkable shift in South Koreans' attitude is their improved affinity toward Trump.
Trump occupies a unique space in South Korean public opinion. He is gaining popularity among both conservatives and liberals over an issue that is so deeply personal on the Korean Peninsula: relations with North Korea.
“This is very rare in South Korea: for Trump to gain popularity from conservatives and liberals,” said Kang Won-taek, a polling expert and political science professor at Seoul National University. “When he first took office, he was the least popular American president here. But he has totally changed the situation.”
South Korean conservatives advocate a tough approach toward North Korea through sanctions and pressure. Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign ratcheting up sanctions and pressure to push North Korea to the negotiating table resonates with them.
Liberals in South Korea seek more engagement and dialogue with North Korea and are hopeful of Trump's pursuit of a meeting with Kim -- despite the brief hiccup last week when he canceled it.
The Gallup Korea survey shows Trump is most popular among conservatives older than 50. The sustained support among conservatives is notable at a time when Trump is pursuing a meeting with Kim, which is supported by liberals, Kang said.
“I was surprised to see the approval rating for Trump has increased. That’s how much hope there is in South Korea for the U.S.-North Korean summit,” Kang said. “There is hope that things will be different this time with Trump and Kim. They see both sides showing serious intentions to meet and agree on denuclearization and security guarantee, rather than just gestures by the two men.”
Still, South Koreans are maintaining a healthy skepticism toward North Korea -- a sign that despite the increasingly positive attitudes toward Kim, it will take time for the South Korean public to build trust toward the North, according to Gallup Korea’s analysis. Moreover, South Koreans' attitude toward Kim is likely to change based on the progress of inter-Korean talks and the result of a potential summit between North Korea and the United States, according to the analysis.
Fewer South Koreans now believe that North Korea will follow through with pursuing peace on the Korean Peninsula or getting rid of their nuclear weapons, according to the survey. Of those surveyed, 49 percent were confident North Korea will keep its word -- a decrease from 58 percent in early May.
The Gallup Korea poll surveyed by phone 1,002 adults older than 19 and reported a 95 percent confidence interval with a 3.1 percentage point margin of error.