SEOUL — Yesterday, US President Donald Trump touched down in South Korea as part of his 11-day trip to five Asian countries. Today also marks exactly one year since Trump was elected, an anniversary he is incidentally spending in Seoul, the current home of Minerva’s sophomores and juniors.
In anticipation of his visit, civil society groups planned large-scale protests both in support of and against Trump for November 4, 7, and 8.
Minerva notified students of the protests in an email — through third-party security consultant Worldcue — urging them to avoid the protests, while in doing so sharing exactly where they would occur.
Two Minerva Quest reporters took advantage of this opportunity and went to the heart of the main demonstrations last night, just blocks from where South Korean President Moon Jae-in (문재인) was hosting President Trump for a reception and state dinner.
The pro-Trump, pro-US supporters could be heard immediately exiting the Gwanghwamun subway station at Gwanghwamun Square — the public plaza surrounded by the US Embassy, Sejong Center cultural complex, Gyeongbokgung Palace, and the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History — which is the most popular rallying point in Seoul.
The plaza’s proximity to the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential mansion, further contributes to the space’s central role in the political life of the nation. It brings the passions of those who mobilize here to the attention of the Korean media and the public, such as last week’s candlelight vigils in commemoration of the one year anniversary of President Moon’s transition to power.
The pro-Trump groups consisted of a drum circle and impassioned Koreans swarming the sidewalks and crosswalks of the plaza. They were only occasionally corralled by the police. The groups were largely comprised of people from older generations with a more direct connection to the effects of the Korean war.
Traditional Korean drummers on the edge of the pro-Trump demonstrations | Louis Brickman
The pro-US and pro-Trump protesters, numbering around 1,000, generally seemed to oppose the current progressive Moon administration, which is pushing for a more reconciliatory and dialogue-based approach to North Korea.
Many people held signs thanking and praising Trump and the US.
Men and women of 50 years and older flaunted US and South Korean flags of all sizes and smiled for photos, quick to engage with our reporters about the benefits of the South Korean and American alliance.
The gathering appeared to be fairly organic without central organization, in contrast to their counter protesters.
Pro-Trump protesters on the steps of the Sejong Cultural Center shouting “Welcome Trump!” | Kate Gilbert
The anti-Trump protesters, though several hundred smaller in number, were notably more organized, with a curated list of performances, speakers, and video presentations on the screen and stage facing the Statue of King Sejong.
The 15,000 to 20,000 Seoul municipal and national police officers on site — as estimated by a police officer present in the square — separated the two conflicting groups with barricades among the spatial divisions maintained by officials.
Photos by Kate Gilbert
The anti-Trump protesters generally support newly-elected president Moon, but have started to levy criticisms as his administration veers toward the political center and has abandoned some of the more liberal promises such as opposing the deployment of the US’ THAAD missile system.
The recent protests have exposed the complicated rifts in South Korean society. They stand at the intersection of the bitterness of the recent presidential impeachment and subsequent election, and the rising geopolitical tensions with North Korea, to which the US has contributed in the last months.
In contrast to the Trump supporters, who were mainly focusing on the North Korean threat, the anti-Trump protesters were more diverse in their political convictions and consisted of various and wide-ranging progressive groups.
Though many groups did emphasize the military tensions and their desire for a peaceful solution, others opposed Trump for his views on LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and race relations.
A speaker on the anti-Trump stage called out: “We oppose racial discriminatory, anti-immigration policy of Trump!” (“인종차별, 반이민정책 트럼프를 반대한다!”), and the crowd responded in Korean, “We oppose, we oppose!” (“반대한다! 반대한다!”)
This is notable because topics such as immigration and race relations are not prominent in South Korea, a very homogenous country with little immigration.
The LGBTQ group was handing out flyers which claimed that in anticipation of Trump’s visit, more than 100 people signed their list and publicly came out as gay in response to his views on LGBTQ rights, another highly uncommon event for the conservative country in which gay marriage is illegal.
About 50 university student protesters, many from Soongsil University, occupied the entrance to Gwanghwamun subway exit nine. They claimed their initial plan was to protest from the steps of the Sejong Center facing the US embassy, but that the police pushed them into the subway entrance ramp to minimize their presence while the US motorcade drove through the plaza.
The students said that they are proponents of the Minjung movement, a South Korean movement for social justice. They claimed that when they interact with pro-US protesters, they’re often called “communists” and are even physically assaulted, though our reporters did not witness this.
Photos by Kate Gilbert
By 19:00, the student protestors queued up neatly to join their organized counterparts in their barricaded area of 600 square meters (roughly 6,500 square feet) at the King Sejong statue. The next two hours included anti-Trump video programming, interpretative dances, passionate speeches, and a candlelight vigil.
One of the videos played was a remix of Psy’s famous “Gangnam Style” — “Impeach Style.” Watch the video here to get a better understanding of the positive yet bluntly critical vibe of the anti-Trump side.
Several students who performed onstage, ages 24-28 and in their matching “Im’peach Trump” hoodies, provided additional insight to the Trump opposition group. They explained that their generation, the first to grow up with a democratic government (following the dictatorship that lasted into the 1980s) and distanced from the Korean War, is in favor of a peaceful Korean peninsula with a smaller US military presence.
When prompted about why their grandparents’ generation is so pro-Trump, the dancers initially joked, “because they’re crazy!” One of whom later clarified, “The Korean War injected a trauma into the people, so they can’t think reasonably and have no logic about this.”
“We are the only divided country in the world,” she noted.
For the younger generation, Trump and his antagonization of Kim Jong-Un mean a future of war and violence in Korea. Many of those in the crowd that opposed Trump were supporters of the Minjung political party, and eager to see how the Moon Presidency would engage with actors in the North-South Korean conflict.
By 21:00 the density of individuals in the anti-Trump section had swelled to about 600 — according to the same police officer.
Around 21:30, Trump supporters trickled onto the stairs of the Sejong Cultural Center to face the street where Trump’s motorcade was planned to depart the Blue House and chanted their appreciation for America across the street from the anti-Trump gathering. The two groups stood facing each other in anticipation of the procession.
“The Korean War injected a trauma into the people, so they can’t think reasonably and have no logic about this.”
The road was closed to public transportation and private vehicles. Nets were hoisted up by the police to prevent any protesters from throwing items onto the street while the motorcade passed. The nets failed in their job; at the first sight of a car approaching the anti-Trump group launched dozens of glow sticks over and under the protective netting and onto the road. The some 200 police lining the barricades immediately grabbed the items off the road and regained their positions.
The protesters throw glow sticks over the protective nets. | Louis Brickman
When President Trump’s motorcade did approach, it changed direction at the last minute and drove down a one way street behind the plaza, away from where everyone had expected it to pass and thus largely out of sight.
Almost immediately after the motorcade passed, the police began breaking down their barricades and eliminating any trace of civil unrest, an anticlimactic ending to the first 12 hours of Trump’s visit to South Korea.
The protests, lasting over six hours, demonstrated an extreme amount of passion and planning on the part of the Korean citizens. With limited civilian-police skirmishes on both sides, the protests and counter protests of Trump’s presence in South Korea concluded peacefully.
— Keep reading for more details and analysis —
The police officer who previously estimated crowd size was open to sharing his personal political opinions. He said that he was pro-US and that the two countries will always remain close allies, but when asked about whether he likes Trump, he responded simply with “Obama” and a laugh.
Though our reporters were careful not to engage in any protests given the illegality of foreigner participation in political demonstrations, they found two US citizens actively participating on both sides.
Steven, a 28-year-old Trump voter from Portland, Oregon, wore a USA beanie and held up his American flag blanket with an older Korean man. He expressed that he was previously a liberal, but became alienated by identity politics and saw Trump as his option to generate change and invest in the image of the US as an unapologetic, proud world player.
“I’m still pro-choice, but would rather debate with a pro-life person than liberals who just shut me up as a white male,” he explained. “I’m satisfied with Trump but I also hope that Republicans don’t get too much power in Congress, because then they could pass anti-abortion laws.”
Rohan, age 36 from North Carolina, held a sign in Korean. He had come all the way from Gwangju, two hours away from Seoul where he teaches math at an international high school, just for the protest. As a person of color, Rohan expressed his discomfort with moving back home following Trump’s election, and that until a large political shift takes place, he would probably remain a digital nomad in Asia or continue to seek opportunities outside of the US.
Rohan expressed his concern with the current level of polarization. “I can’t have open dialogue with people close to me who are very liberal or very conservative,” he explained. “How am I supposed to have dialogue with a stranger?”
Although both Americans held different perspectives on Trump’s presidency and US interference in the Korean peninsula, both shared their disappointment and frustration with the current state of the American political system and claimed that they would have voted for Bernie Sanders.
Of all the sentiments expressed last night in Gwanghwamun Plaza, the reactions of the police and Korean government are the most telling for the future of the Korean-American political relationship. The aspirations of the Korean government under President Moon for peace talks with North Korea invite scrutiny from older, conservative Korean generations, but the organization and control of last night’s protests seemed to favor this political faction. The sheer number of police officers imported from around the country for this 24 hour period — as witnessed in Minerva students’ own hotel where a large group of police officers spent the night — was presumably to maintain appearances and show firm government control. This exercise in maintaining face could be indicative of the subservience of the South Korean government to the United States, or perhaps of the specific desire to appeal to President Trump’s eye for appearances.
The strategic allowance of freedom of expression and speech in a setting with more police officers than protesters arguably gave the Korean government the ability to manage the protests and present a curated appearance to the foreign media. The deceptive move to allow Trump to exit the plaza in the periphery concluded the night but did not lower protester fervor as they prepared to protest today morning outside of the parliament building.
Photos by Kate Gilbert
Adrian Stein contributed reporting, and Antonio Fowl Stark provided Korean translation.
Trump has been a source of both political discussion and anxiety among many in the student body. From non-US student worries about retaining their F-1 visas and ability to reenter the US, to concerns about the threat of armed conflict in one of the cities in Minerva’s global rotation, to the near-daily sight of military helicopters flying above Seoul, his administration has had a presence in many of our lives. Keep an eye out for an upcoming article and video with reflections on a year since Trump’s election.