Summit sparks pride, wariness

Korean immigrants see hope for future, but express caution

June 15, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Kuk Jong Kim strutted out of Lee's Barbershop in Baltimore's "Koreatown" neighborhood yesterday, paused for a moment before a small crowd and dramatically held up the front page of the Korea Times showing a color picture of North and South Korea's presidents shaking hands.

Standing on North Charles Street, Kim was thousands of miles from the action, but seemed to claim this victory as his own. The two presidents of his divided homeland had met for the first time and were groping toward peace.

"The country opened the door," said Kim, 65, who spent the first half of his life in South Korea and the second half in Baltimore. "I feel very proud."

He had read in the Korea Times - which he gets every morning - that President Kim Dae Jung from democratic South Korea and his counterpart, Kim Jong Il, from communist North Korea signed an agreement yesterday to work toward eventual reunification.

The two leaders, meeting in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, agreed to try to reunite thousands of families separated by the Korean War and start providing much-needed investment for the North's crippled economy.

With this information, Kim stopped by Lee's Barbershop in the 2200 block of North Charles Street, gossip central for Baltimore's politically minded Koreans.

"Koreatown," as Kim defines it, falls in the area roughly between Maryland Avenue and St. Paul Street, from North Avenue to 24th Street, where Korean groceries, restaurants, dry cleaners, barber shops and herbal doctors dominate storefronts.

At Lee's Barbershop, Korean-language radio blasts from speakers, and two black leather couches invite customers to sit for a while and exchange opinions.

"Unification isn't going to happen overnight, but now you have communication," said Albert Lee, 55, who stopped by for conversation and a $13 cut. "Maybe they'll open up China-style - a little at a time."

"I'm so excited about this," added Nam Yu, 51, who was born in South Korea. "I wish some Korean people have the opportunity to meet their family again."

Yu, who owns a convenience store on the east side of town, said she dropped by Lee's to hear Korean news on the radio. She didn't want to tune in at her store because Americans don't like to listen to it, she said.

"I don't really follow politics, but I'm following this," Yu said. "All my friends keep calling me, so I came here to find out what's going on."

Then she asked: "Do Americans care about this?"

Yu found out at the barbershop that two presidents discussed opening highway and railway lines across the countries' border for the first time in more than 50 years. They also may hold a second summit in Seoul, the South Korean capital, and create a "hot line" telephone service for discussions during crises.

"That would be wonderful," she said. "The older Koreans have been through so much."

Beyond Baltimore's Koreatown, however, others were more skeptical.

"So many times in the past there have been promises that made people believe something substantial would happen and it's been a failure," said Jai Ryu, the mayor's special assistant for Korean affairs and a sociology professor at Loyola College. "I have been conditioned not to expect too much. I'm cautiously optimistic."

Yesterday's agreement was more detailed than others reached by lower-ranking officials from the two countries in 1972 and 1991. Those deals, which also called for reconciliation and eventual reunification, quickly gave way to renewed hostilities.

Still, Ryu said, the summit is a momentous event for a country that was divided 50 years ago in a three-year war that claimed the lives of more than 3 million Koreans and thousands of U.S. troops.

"The mere fact that it happened was unbelievable," he said of the summit with a hint of hope.

At the Korean Presbyterian Church in Towson, assistant pastor Hang Kyoo Shin, 31, also was hopeful, but doubted Kim Jong Il's sincerity.

"He is a monster," said Hang Kyoo Shin about the North Korean president. "His personality is very emotional, and he makes very spontaneous decisions."

In Howard County, where a large number of Koreans have emigrated, reactions were mixed.

"The idea of reunification is exciting because millions of families have been separated since the war," said the Rev. Timothy Park, pastor of the 1,500-member Bethel Korean Baptist Church in Ellicott City.

One of those separated from relatives is Park's father-in-law, who was a high school student studying in the south when the war broke out, cutting him off from his family in the north.

Park said his father-in-law doesn't even know if his family is alive.

Park expects the changes in the relationship between the two countries to occur slowly.

"Nothing is going to happen in a matter of months. It will be years," said Park, who came to the United States when he was 14.

But all good things are worth waiting for, said Grace Lee, a real estate agent with offices in Howard and Baltimore counties.

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