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North Korea: Watching from Afar

January 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

LEE HOCHBERG: It’s been an intense week at KOAM, Seattle’s Korean-American cable television station.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We expect them to disarm. We expect them not to develop nuclear weapons.

LEE HOCHBERG: Station personnel raced to stay on top of news developments by re-transmitting news broadcasts from Korea to thousands of Seattle-area Korean Americans.

LEE HOCHBERG: The appetite for news has been voracious among Korean Americans, as the crisis within Korea has intensified over the past month. There are some two million Korean Americans nationally; Seattle, with 50,000, is the fifth-largest community in the country. How they’re reacting to the situation depends upon their age and what they’ve experienced in Korea.

KWANG JO KIM (Translated): The communists are not trustworthy, they are not trustworthy at all. There is no way we can engage in any dialogue with them.

LEE HOCHBERG: At a complex for senior citizens, elders who lived through the Korean war in the early-’50s were aghast at the recent statement that the U.S. would help North Korea if it gave up its nuclear weapons. 83-year-old Won Il Cho, who came to this country in 1979, says America’s food and oil would be misused by North Korea.

WON IL CHO ( Translated ): With this assistance, instead of feeding their own people, they are using all this assistance to enhance their military.

CHOONG BO UM: ( Translated ): This premier Kim, Kim Jung Il, as our President Bush has said, that he is the one who is starving his own people. I would like to see that we would nuke them, just wipe out those people.

LEE HOCHBERG: But many of Seattle’s Korean Americans struck a softer tone. They belong to what Koreans call “Generation 1.5″– those who left South Korea as teenagers with their families in the late- 1970s, when the U.S. relaxed immigration laws. Many still have relatives in South Korea. Throughout the community, while grateful to the U.S. and hesitant to criticize it, many were troubled by President Bush’s initial reluctance to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jung Il. Ken Kang, who markets a computer cooling system, fears without negotiations, there will be war.

KEN KANG: If war should break out between let’s say U.S. and North Korea, I guess I’m afraid that may spread into South Korea, and the leader, Kim Jung Il, you know, God knows what he will do.

LEE HOCHBERG: Some followed each diplomatic turn and each new statement from Washington and Pyongyang, via the Korean TV channel. Mike Park came to the U.S. from South Korea in 1976. Now a city council member in the Seattle suburb of Federal Way, he has a daughter in Seoul on a college exchange program. He was relieved that the president opened channels of communication with North Korea through Russia and China.

MIKE PARK: So we’d like to see the military forces complete out picture. So we’d like to see… patiently continuous communication, whether indirect or direct.

LEE HOCHBERG: John Cheng, a Korean-born city councilman in the Seattle suburb of Shoreline, says negotiations are essential.

JOHN CHENG: North Korea has nothing. They have everything to gain. Whether it’s a bluff or not, we got to take it seriously. The United States’ initial response was very harsh. You know, “oh, here we go again,” you know, the… a-la cowboy mentality. And that’s not going to do in this 21st century.

LEE HOCHBERG: Several elders though said younger members of their community can’t possibly understand the nature of North Korea’s leaders.

CHOONG BO UM (Translated): What I saw was the killing of innocent people by numbers, by… not just a killing of these people, but rather very cruelly, they were killed for no reason. That’s what we saw, and that’s what the young people didn’t see.

LEE HOCHBERG: In a discussion this week at a high school in Seattle’s Korean neighborhood, it was clear that even the young do have ties to the past.

SPOKESMAN: Following the Korean War, was your family split up between the South and the North?

SUN KIM: Yes, my father was… my grandfather was the only person that was actually able to escape, and the rest of the family is still in North Korea and we do not know what happened to them.

LEE HOCHBERG: Despite the families torn apart by the war, many of these students say they don’t want to get bogged down in the past because the nuclear stakes are too high. Sun Kim told the class the U.S. must ease North Korea away from the isolation of its past.

SUN KIM: The United States should do everything possible, whatever the cost is, to stop these nuclear weapons from being used, because if it does get used, if it does get into the wrong hands, I mean, you can think of that as the end.

LEE HOCHBERG: And at services Sunday morning at the largest of the area’s more than 20 Christian Korean churches, congregants were told that open dialogue with North Korea is the only way to reunite those long- separated Korean families. Pastor Jay Kang said tensions over the nuclear issue could poison negotiations over how to get those family members out of North Korea and China.

REV. JAY KANG: What I’m worried about is not all about the nuclear issue. Who are the victims in the midst of all these things? I believe the refuges, escapees from North Korea, or the people of North Korea. So if government push the North Korea government into a corner, it’s going to even harm more, I believe, to escapees and refugees.

LEE HOCHBERG: Community members vowed to follow the situation intensely as the U.S. government considers its options.