SINGAPORE: Mdm Choi Nam-sook, a South Korean living in Singapore, has spent decades searching for her mother’s siblings who originally hailed from Pyongyang.
Her 87-year-old mother, who worked as a nurse, was separated from her family during the 1950-1953 Korean War. In the build-up to the war, thousands of North Koreans fled to the south, leaving behind parents, siblings and relatives.
In Mdm Choi’s case, her mother was captured by South Korean soldiers and whisked across the border. Over the years Mdm Choi has tried to reconnect with family, even searching as far as refugee camps on Jeju Island. She has not succeeded.
But following the historic handshake between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday (Jun 12), Mdm Choi has renewed confidence she will be reunited with her mother’s family.
“Hopefully we can find them, but we know it will take some time,” Mdm Choi, who is in her 50s, told Channel NewsAsia. “I called my mother (after the handshake), and she said she hopes to go back to her hometown and see her family, especially her brother whom she misses so much.”
Mdm Choi’s mother lives in Daegu in South Korea.
“Of course, we were divided into two (countries) for more than 65 years,” she added. “Now we have different situations, different ideologies. So we are going to have a lot of issues to solve together.”
Mdm Choi was among the 40 South Koreans here who caught the live screening of the summit over sweets and rice cakes at the Korean Association in Tanjong Pagar. She also distributed “Make Korea Great Again” T-shirts to those who attended.
NOT “IN MY LIFETIME”
As the South Koreans witnessed the handshake between the two leaders, they let out a collective gasp, followed by a round of applause and loud cheers.
At the same time, similar scenes played out at the Singapore Korean International School in Bukit Timah, where more than 100 students gathered in a hall to watch a Korean broadcast of the summit.
“I still can’t believe that it’s happening, honestly,” 17-year-old student Kim Eun-soo said as students put away their plastic chairs and returned to classes following the screening.
“Seeing this happening is really overwhelming. I didn’t think this would happen in my lifetime. I didn’t think my parents did either.”
Back at the Korean Association, Choo Jin-young, a managing director of an interior design company in Singapore, expressed excitement too. “My heart was pumping fast,” she said, adding that she was “very impressed” with the handshake and hoped the two leaders would reach a positive agreement.
Beyond that, Eun-soo hoped for eventual reunification, noting that this is what “Koreans have believed in”. While Ms Choo agreed with the notion, she said “we cannot suddenly come together”. “It’s a step-by-step process,” she added.
Ms Choo also hoped for a progressive move towards reuniting families divided by the Korean War. Like Mdm Choi’s mother, Ms Choo’s grandmother was separated from her siblings when she defected to the south after the war.
“I never thought of seeing my grandmother’s siblings, but maybe now, there’s a chance,” Ms Choo added. “But peace is what we want in our country, first and foremost.”
Eun-soo said her parents too wished for peace.
“They’re probably watching it live,” she said, adding that they had been religiously following the news in the lead-up to the summit. “We were watching the same broadcast yesterday evening and we were talking about it over dinner, so my family is very excited.”
Besides anticipating a more peaceful future, some South Koreans here were also looking forward to potential business opportunities. The unprecedented meeting led some to believe that North Korea could finally be opening up its economy.
In December 2017, the United Nations Security Council imposed new sanctions on the hermit kingdom amid surging tension over its nuclear and missile programmes.
The sanctions limited its access to refined petroleum products and crude oil, and earnings from its workers abroad. North Korean exports of food products, machinery, electrical equipment, wood and vessels were also banned.
But Mr Ken Lee, managing director of a South Korean accounting firm headquartered in Singapore, said his company might open an office in Pyongyang if trade sanctions on North Korea were lifted.
“I think Kim Jong Un is very sincere,” he said. “He has met (South Korean) President Moon Jae-in and Trump. So, (opening the economy) is going to happen. He wants to develop North Korea.
“A lot of South Korean companies open factories in Vietnam, and if North Korea is open to it, we will move our offices and factories over.”
Meanwhile Mr Kim Song-chol, regional director for a ship surveying company in Singapore, said he hopes the summit “will expedite economic cooperation between North and South Korea”.
“Soon we will see South Korean manufacturing companies open in Pyongyang, we are all hopeful,” the 52-year-old said.
Likewise, social studies teacher Lee Deok-hyoung, 38, expects the North Korean economy to improve moving forward. “For South Koreans who want to travel to North Korea, they can go without fear,” he said at the school. “The tension on the Korean Peninsula will be reduced.”
He was overcome with emotion when he spoke of the sheer significance of the summit. “What I thought was impossible became real life,” he said after watching the screening with his students.
Mr Lee said his wife was also watching the summit at home on the television. “My wife said we are living in Singapore, so she wants to feel the summit,” he added. “So I told her: ‘How about you go to Sentosa tomorrow?’
“She said she’ll try.”