February 25, 2019 | 08:51 am GMT+7

A South Korean generation gap on Trump-Kim summit

Elders are wary, while the youth are hopeful about peace and even reunification of Korea, ahead of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi.

Fleeing the Korean War in 1951, five-year-old Kang Young-ho, along with his parents, three sisters and a younger brother, quickly bundled up their clothes in a small bag and ran away from Seoul to the south of the country. 

"It’s an unforgettable memory for me," the grandfather of two told VnExpress.

Kang’s family was among very few Korean people who lost nothing in the war apart from their property. 

The war devastated the lives of millions of Koreans who suffer to this day. 

Historians say that a staggering 3-4 million people were killed, of which as many as 70 percent may have been civilians. "I know that many families were separated by the war. Many of my friends have not seen their relatives for almost 70 years," Kang said.

As current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump are scheduled to meet again in Hanoi this week to discuss denuclearization and an anticipated peace treaty to end the Korean War, VnExpress asked two South Korean men, one in his 30s and the other in his 70s, about their feelings and hopes for the future.

Peace talks better than threat of war, but...

Kang Young-ho, a retired high school teacher, helps his wife at a restaurant for most of the day. He said he watched the 2018 North Korea – U.S. summit in Singapore live on TV at home in the central district of the southern half of Seoul.

"I wasn’t particularly feeling anything," he said frankly. "But it is always better to have peace negotiation than a threat of war. I am happy that we are negotiating with North Korea."

For many South Koreans, live footage of Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump exchanging handshakes and chatting casually at one of Singapore's priciest hotels was surreal and stunning at the same time. 

No North Korean leader before Kim Jong-un had ever had a one-on-one meeting with an American president. The moment humanized Kim Jong-un and brought North Koreans as a whole closer to many South Koreans, including 73-year-old Kang.

Though Kang has no relatives and friends living on the other side of the border, he sometimes takes his family to the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas "so that we can see villages in the North from an observatory. I have read in the newspaper many stories of North Koreans escaping to the South. Once in a while I bump into them on the street and right way I can tell where they are originally from because their accent is a little different."

In his 70s, Kang has seen enough to be skeptical about the meetings between the North Korean leader and their president Moon Jae-in and the U.S. President.

Kang Youn-ho (right), 73, holds his granddaughter in her 2nd birthday. Photo by Ngung Nguyen.

Kang Youn-ho (right), 73, reaches for his granddaughter's hand while his wife holds the baby. Photo by Ngung Nguyen.

While he agreed to give such diplomatic efforts a chance, "I think the South Korean government should ensure its military power to keep us safe all the time," he said.

He was worried about the possibility of American troops being withdrawn from South Korea as part of a deal with North Korea. "They need to stay in South Korea longer," he said.

Kang also said that he doesn’t think it is a must that the Koreas should reunify. 

"By the way, I will pay more attention to the upcoming summit on Feb 27 and 28 simply because my daughter-in-law is Vietnamese and her hometown is Hanoi," Kang said, beaming.

Lee Guy-hun harbors hope for reunification of the divided Korea. Photo on Facebook.

Lee Guy-hun harbors hopes for reunification of the divided Koreas. Photo on Facebook.

Meanwhile, Lee Guy-hun, 32, is busy managing a consulting company in a suburb of Hanoi. Upon graduation from university in the U.K, Lee went to the Southeast Asian country on a scholarship funded by Daewoo chairman Kim Woo-choong.

He was planning to stay for one year to learn the language, explore the cultures and finish his internship at a South Korean business. "Vietnam is a developing country with opportunities which are difficult to find in other places," Lee explained why he has been living here for the past 6 years.

Lee grew up in a quite small town not far from Seoul. "All I knew about North Korea was what I learned from my parents and at schools," he recalled.

Nearly 70 years after the end of the Korean War, every South Korean man between the age of 18 and 27 is still required to do two years military service as the main rationale is based on the fact that the conflict ended in 1953 with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.

And the mandatory military service is the closest thing Lee has come in contact with the North. "You know, our generation has other things to be worried about," he said.

Lee has spent most of the past 10 years living overseas. He only returns to South Korea twice a year to visit his family and friends there.

When North Korea claimed to successfully test-fired its first intercontinental ballistic missiles in July 2017, Lee was in Hanoi watching the news on TV. Growing up with threats from the North, he said he just got used to them. "Like Japanese people have become inured to earthquakes, we South Koreans are not living under constant fear of missile tests," he said.

Busy living his life in Hanoi, nonetheless, Lee said he would follow the summit on local newspapers. "It is a historic event." He said he was cautiously hopeful. "I am not sure how much Kim Jong-un would really listen this time."

Lee strongly supports reunification of the Koreas despite worries about the economic gap and cultural differences after many years of division. He said benefits go with reunification would outnumber any damage to the South Korean economy and society. North and South unified as one would mean greater development potential and more national power.

"I always harbor hope for reunification because in the past we were one," Lee said in a hurry getting back to his work. 

Hạnh Phạm