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June 9, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 22 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Seokyong Lee -- Black Star for Asiaweek
Priorities: To merchant Kim it's getting divided families together

The People Speak Out
What do South Koreans think of the summit? Anything from excitement to wariness

The summit between Seoul and Pyongyang has major implications for the Korean peninsula and for the balance of power in that part of Asia. But, closer to earth, what do ordinary people think -- and feel -- about this historic event, and how it might affect them? Asiaweek's Laxmi Nakarmi canvassed a variety of South Koreans for their views. His report:

In Seoul's bustling Namdaemoon market, seasonal rain on a Friday evening gives merchants a chance to kick back and enjoy a glass of soju, the fiery distilled rice wine, in a neighborhood restaurant. But weightier matters still bubble to the surface. If the summit goes well, muses Kim Nam Il, 45-year-old owner of a bags and accessories shop, he will buy his 75-year-old father a little house in his hometown, North Korea's Nanpo port, so he can contentedly spend the rest of his life there. "I hope President Kim [Dae Jung] will make that possible," says Kim Nam Il. At least he can still dream. A few minutes of silence follow before another small retailer, Hong Ki Yeon, says with a sad voice: "My father also wanted to go back to the village where he was born, but he died early this year."

Reunion is one common concern. Nationalism is another. Housewife Lee Boo Yong believes that Koreans themselves must solve the problem of the two Koreas. "Foreign interests should play no role in the matters relating to our nation, Korea," says Lee, the daughter of a North Korean refugee. "The issues are complex, and it may take a long time to agree on everything. I wish President Kim will focus on a few things and solve them, and meet more often to solve the remaining issues. We have to maintain the momentum." Lee is optimistic that the summit will go well. "If the two sides can continue a conversation without outside pressure, I can even think of eventual unification."

That can be helped by Seoul being generous, say many South Koreans. College student Lee So Yung thinks that South Korea should give more aid to the North. This might prod Pyongyang to allow families to reunite. "Young people do not understand the pain of having a family with whom you have no contact. Politics must come second, family reunion first. We should not forget the human rights of those in North Korea." Lee does not reckon that much concrete will emerge from the summit but, she adds, "I am certain it will augur a new mood in North Korea. South Korea's big companies will begin investing in the North and that could gradually create an environment of freedom there."

Merchant Hong In Pyo, 25, feels the same way. "With economic assistance from our side," says Hong, "there will be a new environment for peace and security." But Hong warns against giving away too much too quickly to the North. "President Kim should not take hasty steps for unification, or we may suffer from economic problems. We must be careful. I also don't believe that Kim Jong Il will easily give up his power. He will remain a dictator. Thus the summit meeting must be seen as only the first step in opening the North Korean door." Others are even warier. "I don't think unification is good for [South Korea's] economy," says Ha Eun Sook, a 27-year-old clerk working in a boutique. "We cannot afford to share whatever meager resources we have with others. Maybe 20 years later."

Much mistrust about the North persists. While shopkeeper Cho Kyung Ja, 48, wants peace so that her 20-year-old son no longer has do compulsory military service, she also warns against rushing into any commitments with Pyongyang. "North Korea has promised many things and signed many agreements before. But they are not good at following through." University professor Lee Sang Woo says Seoul "should not accept any unfair demands by North Korea. Any such promises could make future South-North talks more difficult." Kim Hee Jeong, 46, who runs a small restaurant, says: "President Kim should not get cheated in Pyongyang."

But even the cautious are excited about history being made. Says boutique clerk Ha: "I wish President Kim well for his trip to Pyongyang, and I wish that he can win the Nobel Peace Prize for it." If only it were all so simple.

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