Korean Americans on the “Amazing” Summit

At around 7:30 p.m. last Thursday, Brennan Gang, the director of programs at the Korean American Community Foundation, came home to the news that the start of the Korean Summit had been moved up to an earlier time. As she started cleaning her apartment, Gang began to check Facebook, and then YouTube for YTN News, a 24-hour South Korean news channel.

That’s where she saw a series of historic photos of the two leaders, shaking hands, hugging, and posing behind two school kids who were from a village in the demilitarized zone. This is unreal, she thought. 

“Then it came into my mind—in how many parts of the world when countries are at war can their leaders talk without needing translators?” Gang said. “They could literally be in a room by themselves and just talk. They shared the same history of centuries and centuries together. How amazing is that?”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) and South Korean President Moon Jae In (right) stand hand in hand at the borderline that separates the Korean peninsula. (AP Newsroom)

On Thursday, April 26, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and the South Korean president, Moon Jae In, met for the first time on the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area. It’s been 11 years since the last summit, and it marked the first time a North Korean leader entered into South Korea since the end of the war in 1953. On the agenda: the North Korean nuclear weapons program and denuclearization.

How are Korean Americans absorbing this historical meeting? Several who NYCityLens spoke with hold mixed feelings. On the one hand, they are skeptical. Past summits have been a disappointment, they said. Promises never came to fruition.

On the flip side, they are moved by seeing something they thought they’d never be able to experience in their lifetimes.

“I think for many Koreans and Korean Americans, North Korea was never perceived to be a counterpart, but more a distant state,” said  Brian Byun, a Manhattan resident. “I think this meeting really broke that long sustained perception for a lot of people, including myself, showing auspicious signs that the two Koreas may in fact be able to finally reconcile.”

Gang feels that although her Korean American friends are deeply aware of the realistic obstacles towards reunification, they are letting themselves feel the emotional resonance of seeing the two leaders together.

“It’s because we are so hopeful,” Gang said. “I think people are tempering down the fear.”

Koreatown in Manhattan, New York City. (Jason Kang/Flickr)

Korean American New Yorkers are holding on to the slim chance of denuclearization because they have always feared for the safety of relatives and friends who still live in South Korea.

“I hope the results of this summit will allow me to stop worrying about both of my homes—Korea and America,” said Brandon Hahn, a New York resident.

Interestingly, Korean Americans note that there’s a generational gap in reactions. Many older Korean Americans in New York tend to be more conservative than their younger counterparts. “Members of my family, the older generation, still have memories from the war,”  said New York State Assembly member Ron Kim. “They are distrustful of anything related to communist ideology and often refer to Moon Jae In as a ‘communist sympathizer.'”

Regardless of skepticism and negative reactions, however, Kim thinks the summit was a memorable event that left people brimming with emotion.

“People obviously have different spins on it,” he said. “But you can’t spin off how people feel when they see the leaders hug or shake hands live. Little gestures of human interaction will leave an indelible mark on everyone’s emotions.”