Tuesday’s historic meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un left some Korean Americans feeling dazed but optimistic about what could be the beginning of a new era for the Korean Peninsula.
Trump and Kim met on Tuesday in Sentosa, a small island off Singapore’s southern coast, after months of uncertain negotiations and decades of icy relations between their two countries. It was the first time a sitting U.S. president has met with a North Korean leader.
Joon Bang, the executive director of the Los Angeles–based Korean American Coalition, called the meeting “surreal.”
“It was almost like watching a cartoon because of both of their characters and how much back and forth there’s been,” Bang told HuffPost. “But I think when you step aside from who those two people are and when you consider the history of the Korean peninsula, this is historic, and it’s monumental.”
North Korea and South Korea have technically been at war since the 1950s, with no comprehensive peace agreement after a 1953 armistice and the division of the peninsula into two nations.
There are families that are divided to this day. Kyung Yoon, the executive director of the Korean American Community Foundation, said her father was born in the northern part of Korea and escaped before the division. His father and brother, though, didn’t make it out. She said that in recent weeks she started wondering whether she might someday be able to take her 90-year-old father back to his hometown, where their kin may still be living.
“I had never in all my life ever dared to dream that dream,” Yoon said. “But suddenly that was sparked in me, that little bit of hope and desire.”
For many Koreans, the prospect of a treaty that would officially end the war and possibly reunite families that have been divided for over half a century “means everything,” Bang said.
The possibility of peace on the Korean peninsula is something activist Tony Choi feels Americans who aren’t Korean don’t fully grasp.
“You don’t have to be fans of Trump and/or Kim Jong Un to support the Korean peace process,” he said. “The majority of the Korean people want the peace talks, and I think a lot of people aren’t respecting that. People feel uncomfortable because of who’s doing it.”
That discomfort isn’t unwarranted. Trump’s meeting with Asia’s most notorious dictator came just days after the president alienated some of the U.S.’s closest allies at the G-7 summit in Canada.
One major area of concern, as the Council of Korean Americans noted in a statement shared with HuffPost, is North Korea’s well-documented record of human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch refers to North Korea as “one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world.” In a 2014 report the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights said North Korean leaders terrorize “the population into submission” by employing murder, torture, slavery, sexual violence and mass starvation.
Bang said he was unimpressed by the agreement Trump and Kim signed, which outlined four commitments: to establish U.S.–North Korean relations, to build a stable peace regime, to work toward the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula and to repatriate American POW/MIA remains.
The agreement didn’t appear to include any firm promises from Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapon program, and as one analyst told HuffPost, the agreement doesn’t contain much more than what North Korea promised decades ago.
“We don’t want to get our hopes up too much, because there’s a pattern of North Korea going back on its word,” Yoon said.
But for Choi, even seeing that Kim appears willing to negotiate is cause to breathe a sigh of relief.
“It puts me, personally, at rest because my sister lives about 30 minutes away from the North Korean border,” he said. “To have that assurance that my sister will be safe … would help me sleep better at night.”