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'God is answering our prayers': Korean Americans cautiously optimistic ahead of summit

Some Korean Americans said they were hopeful ahead of the scheduled June 12 summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.
Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un mural in Los Angeles
A mural depicting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looms over a passerby near the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, California on May 24, 2018.Eugene Garcia / EPA file

Hopeful, if a bit skeptical. Positive. Cautiously optimistic.

Those were some of the words Korean Americans used to describe how they felt about the historic nuclear summit planned for June 12 in Singapore between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

For Christine Colligan — co-president of the Korean American Parents Association of Greater New York, a nonprofit advocating on behalf of parents for nearly 30 years — the prospect of a sitting U.S. president meeting with a North Korean leader for the first time in history is a long time coming, ever since the Korean peninsula was split in half at the end of World War II.

“God is answering our prayers,” said Colligan, who emigrated from Seoul, South Korea, in the early ’80s.

I don’t think it would be realistic to expect that this one meeting is going to solve everything, but it is generally a huge step toward the right direction.

The past year has indeed been an emotional rollercoaster ride for many Korean Americans, with Trump and Kim exchanging threats and insults, North Korea conducting ballistic missile tests, and Trump announcing in early March that he had agreed to meet with Kim.

Adding to the anxiety was Trump’s decision on May 24 to cancel the summit, only to declare it back on about a week later following a lengthy Oval Office meeting with Kim Yong Chol, the North Korean leader’s top deputy.

At a minimum, Trump is eager to convince Kim Jong Un to curtail his capacity to reach the U.S. with nuclear weapons, while North Koreans want relief from crippling U.S. and international sanctions. A State Department official has said the U.S. is still looking for an agreement from Kim to give up all of his nuclear capabilities.

'More hopeful than ever before'

Sungkwan Jang, program director of the Korean American Grassroots Conference, a D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group, said it’s difficult to generalize the entire Korean-American community’s take on the upcoming summit.

Jang said reactions can vary, for instance, among people of Korean descent born in the U.S. versus those born in South Korea who grew up in the U.S. That also extends to members of the older generation, including those who served in the Korean military, according to Jang.

North Korea, Jang noted, has a “bad precedent” of pulling out of agreements at the last minute or breaking promises.

But, he added, “I think everybody is more hopeful than ever before, though it’s cautious optimism.”

While getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons will likely take center stage at the June 12 summit, Korean Americans who spoke with NBC News said creating a way to allow family members in North and South Korea to reunite is an equally important component.

Both countries have facilitated 19 face-to-face reunions and seven video reunions since 1985, according to U.S. Senate documents, though Korean Americans have never received the opportunity to participate.

New York state Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat and New York’s only Korean-American state legislator, said that the U.S. should be focused on incremental wins with North Korea.

“If at a minimum we can, out of this summit, establish some sort of presence in North Korea, where we allow the older generation that have been separated to be reunited, I think when the world sees that there are people on the ground that have been separated for decades, family members, that is the type of people-to-people diplomacy that would be very effective,” he said.

The assemblyman added that he believes a majority of the Korean-American community would like to see steps toward both countries reunifying. But he said some, especially in the older generation, don’t want anything at all to do with North Korea.

One recent move toward improving relations between the North and South came when Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met in April, the two leaders holding hands and smiling as they crossed the military demarcation line at Panmunjom.

Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in cross the military demarcation line at Panmunjom, Friday.AP

Kim and Moon signed an historic declaration pledging "no more war" and a common goal of the "complete denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula.

Colligan said Koreans and Korean Americans were touched and overwhelmed by what they saw at the Kim-Moon meeting, which laid the foundation for the Trump-Kim summit.

Another symbolic move came earlier this year when both North and South marched together at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, and for the first time competed as one in women’s ice hockey.

“North Korea, South Korea, Communist, Democratic, but they are Koreans,” Colligan said.

Esther Choi, a 21-year-old undergraduate student at Brown University who was born in Seoul and immigrated to the U.S. in 2010, said that for her it was a very “touchy moment” to watch Kim and Moon shake hands.

She added that she has very high hopes for the Trump-Kim summit.

“I believe it is a starting point for a lot of different kinds of peace processes that might be able to happen,” Choi said.

84-year-old Ri Jong Sil, left, meets with her South Korean sister Lee Young-sil, 87.Lee Ji-eun / EPA

But optimism expressed toward what might come out of the summit was also tempered by skepticism, owing largely to the mercurial temperaments of both Trump and Kim.

Many Korean Americans interviewed expressed a range of concerns about what could go wrong, from whether Trump or Kim might suddenly call off the meeting to whether the North Korean leader will follow through on any commitments he makes to the U.S.

“We want this to go right,” Jang said. “I don’t think it would be realistic to expect that this one meeting is going to solve everything, but it is generally a huge step toward the right direction.”

Choi said she believes there’s a greater chance that Kim will stay true to his word, especially this time because he’s putting himself out in the public eye.

“I think that gesture itself means a lot,” she said.

A group of Koreatown residents watch a live broadcast of the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Los Angeles on April 26, 2018.Jae C. Hong / AP

That Trump has been able to bring Kim to the negotiating table has surprised some, though not all.

Colligan attributed Trump’s apparent success to being “tough” and “tricky.”

“The other presidents have more experience as a politician,” she said.

Trump, she added, “has life experience negotiating business deals.”

Kim, the state assemblyman, said it takes more than just one person to bring about a summit like this.

“It takes multiple administrations, timing, the right stakeholders,” the assemblyman said. “I think South Korean President Moon played a tremendous role in facilitating the right environment for diplomacy.”

I believe it is a starting point for a lot of different kinds of peace processes that might be able to happen.

Kim added that he was a bit surprised the summit is set to happen under the Trump administration. “But at the same time, I don’t think it should matter which administration it is, so long as it moves forward,” he said.

Choi, who noted that she doesn’t agree with a lot of things Trump does and says, said she was bothered by how the Trump-Kim summit has morphed into a partisan issue in some circles.

“It’s just the fact that two countries are at stake, and this is not some kind of game that they’re playing,” Choi said. “But I guess everyone has to grab on to what they can to gain as many votes as they can.”

Jang agreed that party politics shouldn’t be a factor.

“There are definitely people, not only in the Korean-American community, but in the media too, who are just trying to make this a partisan issue, who only oppose this upcoming summit only to oppose President Trump,” Jang said. “I’m really sad and it breaks my heart to see that.”

“Korea is not a partisan issue, it really shouldn’t be,” he continued. “All we’re asking for is stability there, peace and security.”

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