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In South Korea's Presidential Election, A Referendum On U.S. Relations

A demonstrator waves U.S. and South Korean flags together, at a pro-U.S. rally in front of Seoul's City Hall on Saturday.
Lauren Frayer
A demonstrator waves U.S. and South Korean flags together, at a pro-U.S. rally in front of Seoul's City Hall on Saturday.

At a pro-U.S. rally in central Seoul over the weekend, supporters of impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye chanted for the destruction of their enemy, North Korea. They've formed an encampment outside City Hall, where they express support for Park and the U.S., and criticize left-wing politicians.

Park was removed from office in March, a first in South Korea's history. She goes on trial Tuesday for corruption, and faces life in prison if convicted. On May 9, there's a presidential election to replace her.

At the polls, South Koreans are expected to punish Park's fellow conservatives, and elect a liberal instead. The vote also has become a referendum on U.S. relations — about how close South Koreans want to be with the United States.

Park is an icon of South Korea's conservative establishment. Her backers tend to be older, Christian, conservative and pro-U.S. — people who lived through the 1950-'53 Korean War as children.

"The communist threat is still high. We need the U.S. to defend us," said Lee Seung-won, 74, who wore Army fatigues and buttons with a Christian cross and U.S. and South Korean flags. "Younger generations don't realize it, but if we replace Park with a liberal, we're risking our future."

A liberal, however, is leading in the polls: Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer who wants dialogue with North Korea, and possibly cooler relations with Washington.

Protesters clashed with riot police last week in Seongju, a rural southeastern region of South Korea, where the U.S. military is installing a defense systemdesigned to shoot down North Korean missiles. An increasing number of South Koreans are opposed to it. The presidential front-runner Moon vows to renegotiate the deal.

Moon's rallies tend to draw support from younger South Koreans who've grown up in a prosperous, peaceful country. They worry less about war, and more about youth unemployment and corruption. Aside from ex-President Park, the head of Samsung, the country's biggest company, is also on trial for corruption.

"I support Mr. Moon. First of all, I believe he will not be like Ms. Park, taking money from the companies," says Choi Jihye, 23, a student. "I believe he is clean."

Park is accused of conspiring with a childhood friend to collect tens of millions of dollars in bribes from big companies. Charged with bribery, coercion and abuse of power, she faces life in prison if convicted.

Her fall from power has many South Koreans rethinking Park's policies, including the traditional, steadfast alliance with the U.S., which began in the Korean War and its aftermath, when South Korea was a much poorer nation.

Choi says she always considered herself pro-U.S., but she's worried about relations under President Trump. In recent days, Trump has said he may scrap a free trade agreement with South Korea, and has threatened to make Seoul pay for the missile defense system the U.S. military is installing. Trump also has said he's thinking about preemptive military action against Pyongyang.

"I don't know what he wants to do. Fight with North Korea? Take something from South Korea?" Choi asks. "I cannot understand what he is doing now."

North Korea may not understand either, and that may explain why it has not conducted a sixth nuclear test, as has been expected. It has previously set off five underground nuclear explosions, including two last year.

"North Korea knows Trump is no Barack Obama. It knows he could attack any day now," says Jeon Young-sun, a professor of North Korean studies at Konkuk University in Seoul. "So I think that's why North Korea is holding back on major provocations."

On Monday, North Korea said it's bolstering its nuclear program at "maximum" speed — and that only its "Supreme Leader," Kim Jong Un, will decide when the next step will come.

Jihye Lee contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.