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Peace hopes rise among S. Koreans in wake of resumed talks with North

For the first time in a decade, South Koreans appear to wonder if their country will finally be at peace with North Korea.

Kim Ki-hoon, a 35-year-old office worker in Seoul, may be among many who hold guarded optimism on the heels of a fresh detente on the peninsula, which was forged by the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and led to agreements on the North's summits with Seoul and Washington.

"There have been times when South-North Korea relations were bad and times when they were good, and they have almost always gotten worse over time. But I believe it might be different this time because this time it was chairman Kim (Jong-un) himself who said North Korea will denuclearize and that he will hold a summit with the United States," he said.

A recent survey of 500 adult South Koreans by local pollster Realmeter showed 63 percent of respondents welcomed the recent change in North Korea's attitude, while 45.7 percent said they did not trust the North's willingness to denuclearize.

A possible change in the North's attitude was highlighted last week when the North's reclusive leader, Kim, met a group of five special envoys from South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

In the unprecedented meeting with South Korean officials held last Monday, Kim said his country was willing to denuclearize in exchange for a security guarantee.

He also offered to hold a summit with Moon late next month on the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area, also known as Panmunjom, along the heavily fortified inter-Korean border. The meeting, if held, will mark the third of its kind between the leaders of the two Koreas, which technically remain at war. It will also make Kim the first North Korean leader to step on South Korean soil since at least the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

What took the world by surprise came a few days later when Moon's chief envoy, Chung Eui-yong, delivered a message from the North Korean leader to U.S. President Donald Trump proposing what would be the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit.

Trump agreed to meet Kim before the end of May.

"I know they have a long way to go, but I think we just might actually see the denuclearization (of North Korea) this time around," Kim Ki-hoon said.

Kim, who works for a foreign-invested pharmaceutical company in Seoul, said his work is rarely, if ever, affected by changes in inter-Korean relations but that his life is a great deal.

"My work has nothing to do with North Korea, but it does affect my life because it makes me nervous every day," he said.

Kim says he has often thought about immigrating to a different country but that his life, work and family here have kept him from leaving.

He now hopes the recent rapprochement between the two Koreas will lead to their unification in the not so distant future.

"If they are unified, maybe my (two) sons will not have to go to the military. Or at least they will not have to worry about a war like I do," he said.

To those more advanced in age, unification with North Korea, let alone any lasting peace, still seems too far-fetched.

"I used to have nightmares about commies coming to my house at night and killing all my family," Jang Sang-ryeol, 49, said, citing the once famous story of Lee Seung-bok, a nine-year-old South Korean boy who was said to have been killed by North Korean commandos at his home in 1968 after bravely shouting to their face that he hated communists.

"I now understand the story may have been fabricated, but the fear and hatred toward communists may still be there deep inside of my mind and many like me in my age group," Jang, a practicing physician in Seoul, said.

"I still do not have high hopes for North Korea because we never know what the North will say, but if it does in fact give up its nuclear weapons, that would certainly change the way I view North Korea," he added.

President Moon apparently agrees it will not be an easy feat to rid the communist state of its nuclear weapons once and for all.

"We now have a very precious chance to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula," he said in a weekly meeting with his top aides on Monday. "What we hope to achieve in such a short period of time of about two months is a great transition that the world has failed to realize so far. And that is why we may not be optimistic about the outcome and must remain careful in the process."

Many others here agree it will not be an easy goal to achieve, which is why they believe Moon and his U.S. ally, Trump, may be set for a Nobel Peace Prize should they succeed in denuclearizing the North.

For Moon, it will also win him and his liberal administration at least one more vote.

"I am conservative to the bone, but if President Moon does resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, I am sure I will be able to support him because that is something no one else has been able to do so far," Jeon Kyung-hoon, a 42-year-old office worker in Seoul, said.

"I still do not trust North Korea, but I truly hope things will go well this time. I will support President Moon if he succeeds in ridding the dangers of war at least for my child. I hope my kid will not have to have the fears that I have," he added.

(Yonhap)

Kim Sua  edt@koreapost.com

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