|U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk together at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. The U.S. is piling the pressure on Beijing to use its clout with North Korea to rein in its nuclear and missile programs. / AP-Yonhap
US president’s gaffe triggers public uproar here
By Yi Whan-woo
U.S. President Donald Trump has suffered a serious dent in his credibility among South Koreans after he “lied” about the whereabouts of a U.S. Navy strike group and quoting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s alleged false claim that “Korea actually used to be a part of China.”
South Koreans have been familiar with Trump’s credibility gap and flip-flops on many issues in the U.S. _ his use of incorrect information and data as well as unsubstantiated claims.
But they have been bewildered this time as his latest remarks poses a challenge to the security of the Korean Peninsula and South Korea’s national interests, according to analysts, Thursday.
Regarding the course of the U.S Navy strike group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, Trump said last week that “We’re sending an armada” to waters off the peninsula.
His bravado added to concerns over a U.S. pre-emptive attack against North Korea, something his administration has repeatedly warned of in the wake of its missile strike on Syria.
It also stoked fears over a possible war here, fueling speculation that erratic North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may take Trump at his word and risk an attack on South Korea and the American troops stationed here in advance.
The U.S. flotilla, however, turned out to be sailing in the Indian Ocean, thousands of kilometers southwest of the peninsula.
“The public are obviously concerned about whether Seoul can rely on the Trump administration in deterring North Korea’s growing military aggression and preventing China from distorting history to control the peninsula,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
“I’d say Trump proved his incompetence as commander-chief if he really did not know the location of the U.S. strike group. He also deceived South Koreans if he actually knew where it was.”
The White House did not clarify whether it was a verbatim account of Chinese President Xi Jinping or Trump’s own description when the latter said “Korea actually used to be a part of China” during an April 12 Wall Street Journal interview.
But his comment still shocked South Koreans after Quartz, an online news website, published an article on Trump’s ignorance Tuesday that went viral.
The Wall Street Journal interview dealt with the summit between the two leaders at Trump’s resort in Florida from April 6 to 7.
Speaking of Xi’s lesson on Sino-Korean history, Trump said, “He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years…and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes, I realized that it’s not so easy.”
Trump also angered the South Koreans as his words came amid deteriorating relations between Seoul and Beijing amid China’s economic retaliation for the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery here.
Critics claimed Trump echoed the Chinese-centric version of regional history and also appeared to be siding with Beijing’s project suspected of distorting history to eventually assimilate North Korea.
“It hurts the South Korean people’s feelings while stirring up distrust toward the U.S. concerning its North Korea policies,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it is using “various diplomatic channels” involving both the U.S. and China to verify the facts on Trump’s comment.
“We’ll take measures that are necessary as soon as we find out the related facts,” ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck said Thursday.
On the same day, the Chinese foreign ministry refrained from answering queries about Xi’s alleged false claim. Instead, its spokesman Lu Kang told South Koreans “not to be worried” about the incident.
Meanwhile, political parties here lodged protests, asking both the U.S. and China to clearly explain the truth behind Trump’s remark.
“Republic of Korea nationals as well as people of intellectual sensibility are embarrassed and surprised by the incident,” Democratic Party of Korea chief spokesman Youn Kwan-suk said in a press briefing.
“Our country’s fate will not be in the hands of other countries. The Korean people will determine it. The party is making clear that we will take a leading role over issues on the prosperity of the peninsula and inter-Korean unification.”
The People’s Party called the remarks “a diplomatic gaffe.”