SEOUL (Reuters) - As North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump shook hands at a historic summit in Singapore on Tuesday, South Koreans stopped in their tracks to watch the event unfurl on live television.
“I was at work and secretly watching the feed, but I don’t think I was alone watching it,” said Hahm Ha-neul, a 29-year-old working for a state-run company.
“We have a group chat (at work) and we tell each other how we want dialogue with North Korea to go well and how it’d be nice to go up there someday to eat naengmyeon,” she said, referring to North Korean-style cold noodles.
Cha Min-song, a hospital nurse working in Suwon, south of Seoul, said she and her co-workers all stopped working briefly to watch Kim and Trump shake hands.
“Today’s event was even more dramatic because it was canceled briefly. I wasn’t really thinking of it early this morning, but I found myself searching for news as it got closer to 10 a.m.,” she said. The summit began at 1 a.m. GMT.
Trump said at the start of the summit that he had forged a “good relationship” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as the two men sought ways to end a nuclear standoff on the Korean peninsula.
South Koreans have been largely supportive of the summit since it was announced, with a poll in April showing the border village of Panmunjom as their top preference for the venue.
Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held their summit in late April in Panmunjom.
According to South Korean pollster Realmeter, 38.7 percent of 501 respondents surveyed said Panmunjom would be the best choice with South Korea’s resort island of Jeju coming in second at 14.4 percent. Singapore trailed in 7th place with 4.7 percent.
“In the end, I don’t think where they held the summit was important. From Kim Jong Un’s point of view, Singapore may have been a riskier location than somewhere in South Korea and seeing that, I think he really wanted to talk,” said Park Gun-woo, a 24-year-old university student in Seoul. Park said he managed to watch some of the summit before taking an exam.
Kim Woo-seong, a 48-year-old businessman, agreed that the location wasn’t crucial.
“There was no specific reason for the summit to be held at Panmunjom. If the two leaders can lead a great talk, wherever they want is all right,” said Kim, who stopped at a television screen at Seoul Station to catch a glimpse of the two leaders before traveling to his hometown.
South Koreans’ general interest in North Korea has also spiked recently, with sales of books on North Korea from January through June 10 this year exceeding sales of similar books from 2015 through 2017 combined, according to Yes24, the country’s biggest online book retailer.
The nation’s largest online restaurant guide, Siksin, launched a separate section on its website for venues in North Korea this week in light of improving relations with the South.
“We are the first restaurant guide to do so and we have information on eight different locations in North Korea, including Pyongyang,” Siksin said in a news release.
Despite the excitement many expressed about watching Trump and Kim on television, some South Koreans voiced doubts and indifference regarding Tuesday’s summit.
“Peace isn’t bad but I didn’t have that much of an interest because I was busy working,” said Maeng Yeong-hwan, a 32-year-old office worker in Seoul, noting he had more of an interest in the soccer World Cup.
Noh Jung, a 27 hospital administrator in Seoul, said she had low expectations for the summit.
“Trump and Kim met because they both want something from each other,” Noh said.
“It’s a global issue for sure and a happy thing, but... I’m not sure how much South Korea will be able to profit from the event,” she added.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday the summit should set the framework for “the hard work that will follow,” insisting that North Korea had to move toward complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.
North Korea, however, has shown little appetite for surrendering nuclear weapons it considers vital to the survival of Kim’s dynastic rule.
Sanctions on North Korea would remain in place until that happened, Pompeo added. “If diplomacy does not move in the right direction ... those measures will increase.”
In Koreatown, Los Angeles, most of the Koreans at a viewing party for the summit were hopeful for the future, although they acknowledged it would be a long road.
“I think there’s just a glimmer of hope that something positive will come out,” said Grace Yoo, 47. Yoo was born in South Korea and came to the United States at age 3.
“I’m a little worried because it’s Trump, but at the same time hopeful that the two of them can come out respecting each other enough that they’ll want to work together for some sort of future success,” she said.
Reporting by Choi Haejin, Joori Roh, Jeongmin Kim, Jane Chung and Yijin Kim; Additional reporting by Jane Ross in LOS ANGELES; Writing by Christine Kim; Editing by Gerry Doyle