North, South Koreans Cautiously Greet Historic Summit Between Leaders

Apr 28, 2018
Originally published on April 28, 2018 5:24 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The international community cautiously greeted yesterday's historic summit between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea. The two sides agreed to work to rid the peninsula of all nuclear weapons and to negotiate a permanent peace treaty to replace the armistice which ended the Korean War more than 70 years ago. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and he's with us to tell us more.

Anthony, thanks so much for joining us.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So, first of all, we hear that there were some street protests against the summit. Who were the protesters? What was that about?

KUHN: Yeah. I was on the street today, and I ran into these people. These are conservative groups, including military veterans and evangelical Christians. And they were marching downtown. And I recorded some sound of them, and let's hear that for a second.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in Korean).

KUHN: Yeah, so you hear this patriotic music and these very strident words. Actually, I have to tell you, these groups are actually a pretty common sight in Seoul, especially on the weekends. It's really part of Korea's political culture. But they remind us why this summit happened. The current president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, is a liberal, and all three of the inter-Korean summits have been done under liberal presidents because they're in favor of engaging with North Korea and giving them incentives to give up their nuclear weapons.

Now, before Moon Jae-in were two conservative presidents. They were unwilling to engage with North Korea. And, like the protesters, these presidents are staunchly anti-communist and in favor of a close military alliance with the U.S. So while President Moon's ruling Democratic Party hailed the summit as an historic feat, the conservative opposition Liberty Korea party today slammed the summit as a show of fake peace - that's a direct quote - and blamed Moon for caving in to Kim Jong Un's demands.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the North Korean side. Now, I think most people know that the North Korean media, which is tightly controlled by the government, reported extensively on the summit. What did they say?

KUHN: Yeah. It's very notable that they reported in detail on the summit, especially on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's pledge, which he made in writing, to complete nuclear disarmament. And that really commits him. He's on the record as telling this to his people now, and North Korean media published the whole joint declaration. There were long broadcasts and lengthy printed reports with lots of pictures and lots of attention to detail, which the South Korean media also gave to things like the menu at the banquet.

MARTIN: Oh, interesting. Well, what about the South Korean media? What did they say?

KUHN: Most of the op-eds about the summit said the meeting was significant. But it was not enough, they said, to allay the suspicions of South Korean citizens who have seen North Korea pledge peace before, but, you know, not make good on it. A lot of people in South Korea are aware that a summit is going to happen or is - you know, is expected to happen between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. So basically, this was sort of a prelude to that. And, in fact, President Trump tweeted that he spoke today with both President Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to coordinate as they set up the summit - probably in the next month or so.

MARTIN: And finally, what about the regional players - the other regional players like China and Japan? What's been the reaction there?

KUHN: Yeah. China is North Korea's main ally, and it hailed the courage of the two Koreas' leaders for holding this summit, and they're clearly pretty happy with the result. And that's because their chief concern is that they do not want any conflict or instability on their doorstep. And it's clear that the summit, you know, lowered the temperature in the neighborhood.

And remember that a year ago, China's ties with both North and South Korea were really bad because they were not happy about North Korea having nukes, and they were also not happy about South Korea installing U.S.-made anti-missile batteries. So since Moon Jae-in became president, and Kim Jong Un said he was willing to give up his nukes, ties with both Koreas have actually gotten quite a bit better. And China finds itself in a pretty good position in the neighborhood.

MARTIN: Anthony, before we let you go, do you mind if I ask you - just comment on the overall environment. You know, often, when there's kind of a big, international event like this, it kind of takes over the imagination of the people. And I just wondered, did you get a sense of that?

KUHN: Yeah. Well, I mean, there were lots of events here. There were prayer meetings, there were - you know, near city hall, and there's a huge floral display made up of flowers in the shape of the Korean peninsula. And, you know, while the outside world looks mostly at the nuclear issue, this is a divided country. People here have families that have been split up because of the Korean War for more than 70 years. And so the issue of ties between the two Koreas sort of took the spotlight here. And it was very emotional, and the focus was a little bit different from the outside world.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul, South Korea.

Anthony, thanks so much.

KUHN: You're so welcome.

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