South Koreans tune into summit...even from behind bars

A map of the Korean peninsula created using flowers by the Seoul city government at Seoul city hall plaza to commemorate the upcoming inter-Korean summit is seen on April 26, 2018.
A map of the Korean peninsula created using flowers by the Seoul city government at Seoul city hall plaza to commemorate the upcoming inter-Korean summit is seen on April 26, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP, REUTERS) - As the leaders of North and South Korea clasped hands over the Military Demarcation Line, South Koreans were glued to the screen to watch history being made – even from prison. 

South Korean President Moon Jae In will welcome North Korea's Kim Jong Un as he walks across the military demarcation line between the neighbours, still technically at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

"It is an important moment of our history and a very good chance to feel the history," said Park Sung Il, vice principal at Baekun Elementary School in the southern city of Gwangju, which is letting students watch events unfold on television.

"Our kids can get live education about unification by watching South and North Korean leaders shake hands in real time."

It is only the third time the leaders of the countries have met, and previous summits in Pyongyang, the North's capital, were not broadcast live.

"There is the sense of excitement in Seoul that almost everybody is preparing for celebration on Friday," said Victor Cha, a US expert on Korea who was visiting Seoul this week.

 

If the summit goes well, "perhaps people in Washington may be more optimistic" that Kim's meeting with US President Donald Trump, expected in May or June, will go well, he added.

Even convicts across the nation saw their usual diet of pre-edited TV interrupted for “emergency live programming” of the landmark handshake between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In, the South Korean justice ministry said in a statement.  

“We allowed all inmates detained in detention centres across the country to join the nation for the historic moment of the South-North summit,” added the ministry.  

Lee Song Eun, an elementary school teacher in Seoul, usually ensures the television in her classroom is turned off, but made a rare exception.  “Even if I get complaints that I’m not teaching to watch this, I am so curious,” she said.  “The kids were working on their assignments and suddenly broke out into ‘Ah!’ and ‘Oh!’ when Kim Jong Un appeared,” she told AFP.  

Worker Kim Eun Jin, 31, said her whole office gathered around the TV to watch the summit pageantry play out on television.  “My colleague was so touched, he cried,” she said.  

The summit dominated online as well, with “Kim Jong Un” the most searched term on Naver, South Korea’s largest portal.  

Phrases like “Pyongyang naengmyeon” – a North Korean cold noodle dish – and “Military Demarcation Line” were trending on South Korean Twitter. 

In Seoul, a gigantic TV screen will broadcast footage outside city hall. The plaza has been festooned in flowers arranged in the shape of the Korean peninsula to "create a conducive environment," a city official said.

In Gwangju, a theatre is offering free admission for people to watch the broadcast on its movie screen.

"Think about South Korean honour guards escorting the leader of our enemy state," said Lee Shin, the head of a reunification research group in the city. "This is a very significant moment of our history."

In contrast, on the other side of the border, North Korean state television – there is no other kind – showed a test card all morning, with the first news bulletin in the afternoon merely reading out a dispatch from the official KCNA news agency saying Kim had set off for Panmunjom to meet Moon. 

‘Murderous tyrants’ 

At the main press centre, where around 3,000 journalists have gathered, a wave of applause rang throughout the cavernous room when Kim approached Moon for a handshake.  

Like Moon in the summit room, journalists from the South roared with laughter when the North’s leader joked about how he had brought Pyongyang naengmyeon for the dinner banquet. 

“I hope that the president will be able to enjoy the Pyongyang naengmyeon that has travelled far,” Kim said, before laughing and adding, “I shouldn’t say far.” 

Pyongyang naengmyeon – already a popular summer delicacy in the South – appeared to be selling like hotcakes at lunch time.  Thousands of South Koreans posted photos of the cold buckwheat noodle they slurped down for lunch on Instagram with hashtags including #summit and #peacenaengmyeon. 

“Eating a bowl of naengmyeon hoping for peace,” said one user.  The sudden high demand meant that some were turned away disappointed.  

Office worker Lee Su Hyeon told AFP that 100 people were ahead of her in the line.  “I really wanted to eat naengmyeon today. I’m so sad,” Lee said.  

But not all was euphoria and optimism, with some protesters burning a North Korean flag near a checkpoint leading to the Demilitarised Zone where the summit was taking place.  

One commenter on Naver said the summit was positive, “but we can’t have blind faith”, blaming Kim for the assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia last year. 

“We believed them during the 2000 summit and were hit in the head. We have to be open all possibilities. We have to be wary because he is the guy who killed his brother.”