Asia-Pacific

Koreans on the border pin hopes for peace on summit

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As the historic summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is underway, Koreans living on Gyodong Island share their hopes with SBS News.

On the quiet shores of South Korea's Gyodong Island, curious locals peek through a wire fence for a unique view of North Korea just three kilometres away.

The two Koreas have been at war for nearly 70 years, with many displaced North Koreans now living on the island - including Choi Byeong-ryul.

The 87-year-old Korean war veteran told SBS News he longs to return to the North but, like many others on the island, has been unable to since being displaced. 

Mr Choi hopes the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump in Singapore will result in a deal that lets him travel freely to his homeland.

But amid speculation the two leaders will agree on a peace deal to officially end the Korean War, Mr Choi thinks reunification between the North and South is a long way off.

“I feel devastated. Especially during the birthdays of my family, I miss them more on big traditional holidays,” Mr Choi told SBS News.

Cautious optimism

Despite a flurry of recent inter-Korean diplomacy that saw Kim step over the demarcation line in April, South Koreans have felt the brunt of the North’s unpredictability. The last ballistic missile test launch on the peninsula happened just seven months ago.

But a relaxed atmosphere prevails at Gyodong’s strip of touristy markets, with many expressing hope rather than fear ahead of the summit.

“People appear to have higher hopes than before and have expectations of reunification,” store owner Kim Kyoung-ok told SBS News. 

Gyodong Island's bustling marketplace ahead of the Singapore summit.
Gyodong Island's bustling marketplace ahead of the Singapore summit.
SBS

Some expressed concern about the conditions of any deals and the potential effect it could have on South Korea’s economy but also said they’re open to the idea of the summit as a stepping-stone.  

“If they trust each other it could be a very honourable meeting … for North Korea or South Korea or the other nations who are helping our nations,” Minwoo Lee, an 18-year-old student from Seoul, told SBS News. “It could be a good first step.”

Prepare for 'worst-case scenario'

Analysts remain sceptical about the prospects of true and verifiable denuclearisation in the North.

Konyang University missile expert Taewoo Kim, who advises the South Korean and US militaries, told SBS News it’s important that deals aren’t rushed, which could jeopardise security in the South.

“[North Koreans] have numerous underground tunnels and they have numerous facilities all over their territory,” he said. “It is technically impossible to search them within that short period.”

The presence of more than 28,000 American troops on the Korean peninsula remains a sore sport for Pyongyang. Recent joint drills with South Korean troops angered the North Korean leader so much he threatened to call off tomorrow’s summit. 

“We should do both,” Professor Taewoo told SBS News. “Talking with North Korea and preparing against the worst-case scenario.” 

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