Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

South Koreans Are Still Buzzing Over Last Month's Inter-Korean Summit


We now know that the U.S. and North Korea will be holding that big summit on June 12 in Singapore. Nowhere are expectations for the summit higher than in South Korea, a country still buzzing over an inter-Korean summit last month. NPR's Anthony Kuhn brings us a report on the public reaction from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At a film studio just outside the South Korean capital there's a mockup of Panmunjom, the border village where the recent summit was held. A sixth-grader named Park Beom-joon is with a group of students who are re-enacting the historic handshake between the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month. Park says he watched the summit on TV.

PARK BEOM-JOON: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "It was thrilling," he says, "because it was amazing to see the leaders of the two Koreas meeting when we're technically still at war."

Were you playing Moon Jae-in or Kim Jong Un in the handshake?

BEOM-JOON: Kim Jong Un because I'm so heavy.

KUHN: According to one opinion poll, trust in Kim Jong Un's intentions went from 15 percent before the summit to nearly 80 percent after it. Some South Koreans say Kim Jong Un's performance at the summit changed their minds about him. Choi Jeong-sam, a businessman, has brought his family to the film studio.

CHOI JEONG-SAM: (Through interpreter) From what I had previously seen in the media, Kim was nothing but a dictator. But watching him on TV at the summit, he was a very young person, and I saw childlike qualities in him.

KUHN: Kim Jiyoon is a public opinion expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank. She says South Koreans are exhausted by decades of living under the threat of war, and they really want to be optimistic about the future.

KIM JIYOON: I used to remember that, when I was a kid, I was always under the threat, what if North Korea attacks us again? What if there's another war? What if my parents and my family got killed?

KUHN: She says that South Korea's development into an affluent and cosmopolitan society has buried those traumatic memories, but below the surface of people's minds, they're still there.

KIM: And then, by hearing the two heads of state saying that we are going to end the war, and there's a huge relief.

KUHN: Two inter-Korean summit since the year 2000 have failed to deliver peace. But polls show most South Koreans feel this time is different. Bong Young-shik is a political scientist at Yonsei University in Seoul. He says one reason is that for the first time in a decade South Korea has a liberal president who's willing to engage with North Korea. The other is President Trump, whose policy of sanctions has been effective and his strategy inscrutable.

BONG YOUNG-SHIK: The most favored strategic asset for North Korean leadership - being unpredictable. Now the strategy belongs to the Trump administration.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.