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Greater Cincinnati's Korean community shares guarded optimism after Trump-Kim summit

Posted at 7:05 PM, Jun 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-13 04:40:27-04

ANDERSON TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Jinja Cales was 7 years old when the war between North and South Korea began.

Millions died. The fighting ended, but not the fear of invasion for people like Cales. She left Korea in 1964 to escape the violence and now lives in Anderson Township. 

Like many in Greater Cincinnati's Korean community, she now hopes the promises from Tuesday's historic summit will be kept.

They're also cautious.

Nearly five hours of unprecedented and surreal talks between President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un culminated with fulsome declarations of a new friendship but just vague pledges of nuclear disarmament.

PHOTOS: See what it was like at the Singapore summit

Cales said she could tell from Kim's face that he was sincere.

The document he and Trump signed said the North Korean leader "reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." In exchange, Trump agreed to "provide security guarantees" to North Korea.

But there was no mentioning the previous U.S. aim of "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization." And Kim's commitments did not appear to go beyond what he already pledged to do in April when he met South Korean President Moon Jae-in along their countries' border.

Cales wishes both the North and Trump would have made progress toward formally ending the Korean War. The 1950-53 fighting ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, meaning the nations are still technically at a state of war with one another.

"They really didn’t talk about bringing peace to Korean people, because many North Korean children and people dying from starvation," she said.

The day began with Trump patting Kim on the back and placing his hand on the North Korean's shoulder as they walked into their first meeting. Their body language was openly friendly, a striking warmth given Kim's iron grip on power and dismal record on human rights. Trump's move to meet him attracted fierce criticism for normalizing a regime routinely called out for its human rights abuses, that over years has built an image of fearsome renegade regime, throwing around threats of nuclear war.

It was not clear whether Trump raised those issues during the meetings. And when pressed about his comments about Kim's brutal tactics, Trump praised the North Korean leader's ability to run a country at a young age.

"He is very talented," Trump said, citing Kim's ability to "take over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and run it, and run it tough."

AP FACT CHECK: How Trump distorted history on North Korea

Trump said the summit would not have happened without Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old who suffered brain damage while in North Korean custody and died in June 2017, days after he returned home to Ohio.

"I think without Otto, this would not have happened," Trump said. "Something happened from that day; It was a terrible thing, it was brutal, but a lot of people started to focus on what was going on, including North Korea. I really think that Otto is someone who did not die in vain … he had a lot to do with us being here today."

Warmbier's parents, Fred and Cindy, issued a statement saying they appreciated the president's comments.

"We are proud of Otto and miss him," they said. "Hopefully something positive can come from this."

Like Cales, Suk-hee Kim also is a native of South Korea who moved to the United States. She now teaches social work at Northern Kentucky University. 

Kim is taking a wait-see-and-hope approach to the promises the two leaders made. The North's nuclear arsenal and economy were two issues at the summit; but for Kim, those pale in comparison to human rights issues.

North Koreans, she said, are sisters and brothers of South Koreans, and they haven't been forgotten in the decades since the war ended.

"It is a broken situation, and it is time to bring the unity and bring the sisters and brothers altogether," she said.

She moved to the U.S. in 1997 and appreciates the freedom of expression she had in South Korea, and now here. She'd like to see the same thing for North Koreans.

"I am certainly believe that they bring this freedom to North Korea so that they have a right to live freely, they have a right to speak freely, and they have a right to express their own feelings," she said.