Maryland Korean-Americans 'cautiously optimistic' as historic summit looms

As President Donald Trump prepares to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Koreans and Korean-Americans in Maryland are watching intently.

To Cecelia Chyu, a doctor of oriental medicine from Ellicott City, Kim’s polite manner during his visit to South Korea last month suggests he can be trusted when he says he’s committed to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

Samuel Ahn, a retired obstetrician from Westminster, is far more skeptical.

“The rumor is that he has been taking acting lessons for two years” to learn how better to deceive the West, Ahn said. “He definitely came prepared.”

Their disagreement reflects the diversity of views among Koreans as the world awaits the historic summit, which Trump has announced will take place in Singapore on June 12.

“Plans are being made, relationships are building,” Trump said this week from the White House. “Hopefully, a deal will happen and with the help of China, South Korea and Japan a future of great prosperity and security can be achieved for everybody.”

If Trump and Kim do meet — and one never knows, as North Korea has a long history of last-minute cancellations — it would be the first time a sitting American president has met with a supreme leader of the Democratic Republic of North Korea, the repressive Communist state created by Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, 70 years ago.

Kim has said he wants to negotiate a “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula — a term that has yet to be clearly defined. Trump, who spent months mocking the dictator with nicknames such as “Rocket Man,” has said he is willing to listen.

At stake is the balance of power in a proud land whose division remains a cruel reminder of the bitter ideological struggles that shaped global geopolitics in the mid-20th century.

Whoever deserves credit for bringing the two sides to the table — some say it’s Trump with his aggressive stance; others, a more open-minded Kim — many in Maryland’s sizable Korean-American community say the fact it’s on the docket at all is a positive development.

But since many Koreans say they can’t understand Kim, and nearly as many say they find Trump emotional and hard to predict, many are looking back to the surprise meeting last month between Kim and South Korean President Jae-in Moon for clues to how things might work out.

That April 27 summit was universally seen as amicable. The leaders held hands, strolled on both sides of the stone curb that separates the two nations, sat on a bench and chatted quietly, all as news cameras rolled.

It was the first time a North Korean ruler had set foot on South Korean soil. Both leaders agreed to work toward a formal end to hostilities between North and South by the end of the year, and the eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

Koreans in Maryland, watching from the other side of the globe, found themselves parsing the leaders’ words and body language and trying to square them with past behaviors — especially Kim’s.

Chyu, speaking in Korean, said she was suspicious of Kim’s motives at first, but his decorous behavior that day made her feel better, as did the fact that Kim, unlike his father and grandfather, was educated in the West — Switzerland — not North Korea.

John Hwang, 74, a bespectacled music teacher from Severn, didn’t blame Kim Jong Un for wanting a nuclear weapons program. The Hermit Kingdom is caught between the interests of the United States and other nuclear powers, he said, and the summit with Trump would never have come about had Kim not developed one.

He pointed out that recent polling in South Korea showed that last month’s talks had sparked unprecedented hope.

“I’m very hopeful about Kim Jong Un’s positive effects on South Korea,” he said through an interpreter. “Because of taking part in the talks, President Moon’s popularity jumped from 60 to 80 percent, and that’s unheard-of for a Korean President.”

Laura Pohl is a Korean-American photographer in Baltimore. The city is home to about 18,000 ethnic Koreans, according to the 2010 census. Her recently completed traveling exhibition, “A Long Separation,” which documents the lives of people who are separated from their families in the North, enjoyed recent one-day showings in Ellicott City and Baltimore.

Pohl, 41, said it’s tempting to “feel like we’ve all been here before:” Past attempts to secure peace and a denuclearization of the peninsula have fallen through — mostly, she said, because North Korea failed to live up to its word.

But given recent events, she said, she is more hopeful.

“The fact that Kim Jong Un stepped over to the South Korean side, over the curb that literally divides the two Koreas, seemed like a small thing, but it was so symbolically important,” she said. “Maybe it’s just a high from the [April 27] summit, but it does feel different this time.”

Mina Cheon, a Korean-American professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, has focused extensively on North Korea in her work as a multi-media artist.

She, too, is optimistic about recent developments, and what they portend for a potentially reunited Korea. But she’s less hopeful about what Trump might contribute.

“I personally think the South Korean president and his positioning is making ways for peace between the Koreas and ending the Korean war, because it could have gone the other way,” Cheon said. “But his acknowledgment of Trump is also quite brilliant and very diplomatic.”

Moon has given Trump credit for getting Kim to the table, and said the accomplishment was worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

“I see hope and strength for the Koreas, mostly due to the handling by President Moon for this round of progress,” she said.

Peter K. Hwang is a Korean-American attorney who practices in Columbia. Howard County is home to 13,000 ethnic Koreans.

Hwang, 38, was born and raised in the United States. His parents now live in Seoul. He said the people of South Korea are so used to living in the shadow of North Korea that they’ve grown accustomed to its threats and saber rattling, but the pending talks have the public there unusually excited.

“I think everyone agrees that North Korea’s decision to come to the table is certainly a hopeful sign,” he said. “I’d say that for many in the Korean-American community, and in Korea, the term to use is ‘cautiously optimistic.’ ”

At a recent gathering of seniors at Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City, a hub of spiritual and social activity for the Baltimore area’s 35,000 Korean-Americans, the sentiment did lean toward caution — no surprise, perhaps, given that most Koreans old enough to remember the Korean War are likely to view the North and its motives with suspicion.

Ahn’s childhood was scarred by the very formation of the North Korean state.

He was born in what is now North Korea in 1942, at the height of World War II. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the U.S. military oversaw the division of the nation into two parts: a Soviet-occupied north and a U.S.-occupied south.

Ahn’s father worked for the North Korean government before it embraced communism in 1948. As he sensed the coming takeover, he fled to Seoul. He sent for his family — including Samuel, then 7 — months later.

When the North Korean army stormed the South and took over Seoul in June of 1950, the elder Ahn hid in a friend’s basement for three months as the invaders tracked down and executed some 3,000 of his fellow “anti-communists.”

The United States liberated Seoul in September. The Ahn family moved to the southern port city of Busan, where they once again started their lives from scratch.

The war would rage on for three more years, the United States backing the South, the Soviet Union and China backing the North, before the sides agreed to an armasitice in 1953. Estimates of the dead vary widely, but range in the millions.

The Ahns came to the United States in 1971.

“I’ve always had bad feelings about North Korea,” said Samuel Ahn, 76.

Some of the seniors at Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church pointed out that the term “denuclearization” had not been clearly defined. It could mean elimination of weapons alone, of all nuclear development, of all means to manufacture nuclear weapons, or something else. Some expected Kim to exploit the ambiguities.

Others focused on North Korea’s history of violating its nuclear weapons agreements, including treaties with South Korea in 1992 and the United States in 1994 and talks with five nuclear powers in the early 2000s.

In each case, the communist state agreed to forswear, limit or abandon its nuclear weapons program, and in each case it continued or expanded its program.

One woman said North Korea’s skill at “tactical deception” could allow Kim to hide a nuke or secretly rebuild his arsenal.

Ahn said everything could hinge on Trump’s skills as a negotiator. The remark sparked a burst of vigorous debate, all in Korean.

Once the noise died down, Junghwhan Kim, 67, turned to an English-speaking visitor and translated.

They hope he comes prepared, he said, and that he keeps in mind that as the U.S. president, he bears a huge responsibility to Korea.

Still, they don’t know what to expect.

“The consensus here is that Mr. Trump is very unpredictable,” Kim said, and laughed. “Some people don’t trust him any more than they do Kim Jong Un.”

jonpitts@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonpitts77

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