'I'll watch and pray': Here's how Koreans in the U.S. really feel about the Trump-Kim summit

To South Korean-Americans and North Korean defectors now living in the U.S., President Donald Trump's historic summit on Tuesday with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un summons feelings ranging from joy to disgust. And certainly skepticism.

'If this summit is only about nukes, it's a tragedy for us,' North Korean defector in U.S. says

Members of the North and South Korean community in the U.S., from left: Jay Cho, Yeonmi Park, Seonmin Lee and Grace Ahn. (Submitted photos)

It's much more than a mere "getting to know you" meeting in Singapore, no matter how Donald Trump frames it.

To South Korean-Americans and North Korean defectors now living in the States, the U.S. president's historic summit on Tuesday with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un summons feelings of joy, hope, disgust and certainly skepticism.

Trump is due to become the first sitting U.S. commander-in-chief to meet in person with a North Korean ruler, in a bid to resolve a nuclear crisis resulting from Pyongyang's advancements toward perfecting its nuclear weaponry. 

It's the culmination of months of on-again, off-again diplomatic brinksmanship, vacillating from promises of concessions, to a good-faith gesture, to insults, to a near-cancellation last month, and back to the resumption of talks.

Few people in the States are monitoring the twisted timeline with as much emotional investment as the Korean community. 

Here's how some people said they're feeling about the summit. Some responses have been abridged:

Yeonmi Park, 24, New York City, escaped from North Korea at age 13:

Yeonmi Park, 24, escaped from North Korea when she was about 13 years old. Now living in New York City, Park says the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit will be a wasted opportunity if it doesn't address human rights, but only focuses on denuclearization. (Associated Press)

The degree of oppression we faced in North Korea, we were just brainwashed to think our Dear Leader can read our thoughts. We believed he is a god who can do miracles. 

I was living in the border area with China, in Hyesan City. But after my father was imprisoned for informal trading, I escaped to China. I thought, if I go to China, I might find food to eat. The only reason to escape was to find a bowl of rice. And I was trafficked and sold in China. That's the lives of North Koreans in China, being sold as sexual slaves. 

To see that dictator [Kim] holding hands with the South Korean president, when our lives as North Koreans is being raped, being sold, being starved to death, being executed in concentration camps — that was disgusting. It's a nightmare.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in embrace each other April 27 after signing on a joint statement at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea. (Associated Press)

Now, Trump is only going to talk about nukes. That's why I can't be cheering other people deluded by this fake peace. This is a wasting of time. People in North Korea will continue to be oppressed. Why would North Korea people care if they have nukes or not? All they want is food. They want freedom.

Trump loves winning, but he's already losing. What Trump did was give this dictator a free ticket, to promise to get him to Singapore, without getting him to do anything. And it's legitimizing his regime. 

My concern is: How on earth is anything more urgent than the lives of people in North Korean concentration camps? Nukes can wait; they be removed in 20 years. But lives in North Korea can disappear. And that's not the main thing Trump is going to talk about. It's a mistake. So to me, this summit is just a show. Without including the most important thing, without talking about human rights and bringing up the 25 million lives in North Korea, it's more publicity. It will achieve nothing. If this summit is only about nukes, it's a tragedy for us.

Jay Cho, 51, Fullerton, Calif., immigrated from South Korea at age 24:

Jay Cho, 51, left, emigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when he was 24. After years of watching the North Korean regime make false pledges about ceasing its nuclear program, 'this time, we hope it will be different,' he says. (Courtesy Ellen Ahn)

I'm happy. I think it's a good thing. I'm trying to be optimistic, let's put it that way. My personal opinion is that with President Trump, some issues I cannot agree with him. And this North Korea issue is one thing I want to give him credit for. I believe the sanctions on North Korea worked somewhat.

We had experienced that they tried to meet and talk about peace. This time, we hope it will be different than before. And it looks different this time, because Kim Jong-un, he's moving to Singapore. And he sent his guy [North Korean spy chief Kim Yong-Chol] to the White House.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump, left, both arrived in Singapore over the weekend ahead of a high-stakes summit between the two leaders on Tuesday local time. (Evan Tucci/Associated Press, Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

We all hope this time is not a joke. Previously, everybody thought it was a joke. But releasing the three American prisoners was a good sign. This time, I think Kim Jong-un is different than his father or grandfather.

Seeing Kim Jong-un and [South Korean President Moon Jae-in] hugging, that was really a moment I didn't expect. It was very touching. I was emotional watching that. But at the same time, in my deep mind, I thought it's maybe one of Kim Jong-un's fake gestures. I don't trust him 100 per cent, to be honest with you.

This is huge news, and it's a huge step toward denuclearization. And maybe reunification.

Seongmin Lee, 31, New York City, escaped from North Korea in 2009:

Seongmin Lee, 31, was born in a North Korean city bordering China and earned a meagre living as a smuggler selling North Korean puppies to China and bringing back Chinese-made candies and rubber boots. He escaped in 2009. He's currently studying international policy at Columbia University in New York. (Courtesy Soungmin Lee)

My father was a military officer; my mother was working in the state factory. And when I found out on July 8, 1994, that Kim Il-sung died, it was a shock. The announcer was crying on TV, we were all told to sit at the TV, and in North Korea, it was unthinkable — like, wow, a kind of god-like figure, Kim Il-sung, died? I actually thought the sky was collapsing. Like I was dying, too.

From the time in the 1990s when the famine started, I remember it was a very difficult time. It became everyday life. Half of the class would actually attend school because they didn't have a meal. And then you started to see crazy things, like public executions. We were students gathered there, on the public grounds at the factory, and they were shooting people before our eyes.

I'm not convinced North Korea will denuclearize and then meet the standards of the United States. Even though North Korea has dismantled its nuclear test site, I don't see any authenticity. The North Koreans will say the words we want to hear, but Kim Jong-un wants what he wants, economic incentives. He's not trustworthy.

I think nuclear weapons [are] important to North Koreans. It gives a sense of pride. I think most North Koreans are swayed by propaganda, and the regime has insisted nuclear weapons [are] a "sword of justice" to protect the lives of socialism from the possible invasion by the American imperialists. It's going to be very hard to denuclearize North Korea permanently. Chances are slim that genuine denuclearization is going to happen.

I hope when the U.S. negotiators sit down with North Korea officials, what they really need to see is not those they're in contact with at the table. They should be able to see the people who are beyond their shoulders, beyond the shoulders of the North Korean officials — the 25 million North Korean people. Real change can occur in North Korea only when the international community finds a way to engage with North Korean citizens. The regime thrives on isolation.

Grace Ahn, 77, Seal Beach, Calif., escaped North Korea when she was nine or 10:

Grace Ahn, 77, was born in North Korea and currently lives in Seal Beach, Calif. She hopes the U.S.-North Korea summit will lead to family reunifications and peace on the Korean Peninsula. (Courtesy Ellen Ahn)

I'm still angry at the war. War is very miserable. I already experienced it, so we want peace. Who doesn't? A few million people died during the Korean war. There are many many miserable Korean stories.

I was born in North Korea in 1941. I left with only my immediate family. My father was already captured by the Communists because he was anti-Communist. We don't know how he died. He was 48 years old. 

So many families have the same situation, like me. Our extended family still lives in North Korea.

Now? Everybody's happy now. Especially those who experienced the Korean War, they will be very, very happy for peace. Of course, I'm watching every moment from now for the summit — the arrival, the departure.

Of course, we saw pictures of [South Korean President] Moon Jae-in and Kim. Many Koreans watched that embrace. We were very happy, very emotional for this. We've been waiting for that. I think most Koreans were waiting for that. I want to believe peace is possible. Who knows? I'm not a politician. We just watch. We just wish for Korean Peninsula peace.

I'm a very ordinary person, I just watch TV; I'm not a political expert, But I don't want to be disappointed by this summit, so I'll watch and pray.

About the Author

Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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