Nuclear test: Korean hopes high
Korean Australians say next week’s summit could prove historic
Tucked beside a bridge over the very rough end of the Cooks River are the run-down premises of the Korean Society of Sydney. Vice-president of the society, Kee-sun Lee, is hoping that next week’s on-again summit between US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore could finally declare an end to 65 years of war between the North and the South. As the pre-summit posturing intensifies, and amid reports [$] today that Trump is promising to normalise relations and invite Kim to the White House should the North denuclearise, there seems to be rising optimism in the local Korean community.
Lee has an amazing life story: after playing volleyball for South Korea’s national side, he spent five years in the special forces, and became a professor in biomechanics. He came here in the 1980s to study, was recruited to coach the New South Wales volleyball team, and has stayed ever since. For two decades he ran a duty-free shop, and for the last 10 years he has been an advocate for asylum seekers in Australia, including North Korean defectors. Since South Korea declared that all North Koreans could be citizens, Lee says, Australia has refused to offer the defectors asylum, arguing they will be safe in the South.
In an interview at the bottom of an old clubhouse rented from Canterbury–Bankstown council, while local Korean women practice dancing and karaoke upstairs, Lee tells me that there are thousands of North Korean refugees in Sydney who are likely to be sent back. He says that conditions in North Korea are much better than they were three-to-four years ago, and starvation in remote rural areas has been remedied by the rise of small markets, which remain illegal but that local communist authorities have turned a blind eye to.
He puts a surprising amount of faith in young, Swiss-educated Kim Jong-un. “He is very different from his father and grandfather,” says Lee. Kim is more liberal, and under pressure from the people who are listening to South Korean radio, singing South Korean songs. Lee also commends South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who talks about Koreans living together, has been an effective mediator between Kim and Trump, and who he expects will turn up in Singapore next week. North and South Korea want peace, says Lee, but have been trapped in a proxy war between China and America. As a soldier staring across the DMZ to the North, Lee used to wish he could talk to the other side. “It was not our war, it was their war,” he says.
Lee has a certain amount of animus against Japan and Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, who is meeting with Trump this week. “Abe is in a hurry,” says Lee. “He’s not happy!” Lee believes Japan has benefitted from the decades of Korean conflict, through huge US investment in post-war reconstruction, and does not want to see the North and South unite. The local Korean community talks about “Abe’s passing” as the original six-party talks have been whittled down to four – North and South, US and China – leaving Russia and Japan as bystanders.
Lee expects a good result next week, hoping the North and the South will finally be allowed to end their war, and save vast amounts on military expenditure. Trump is unpopular at home and needs a win, Lee says. “It’s a good opportunity to restore his reputation.” National security adviser John Bolton could be an obstacle, Lee says, because he doesn’t not want peace between the North and the South.
Denuclearisation won’t happen immediately, but will be the objective. “[North Korea’s] nuclear weapon is not to attack, just to protect themselves,” he says. The warheads aren’t the issue anyway, he says – the North only has one or two – it’s the intercontinental ballistic missiles, which can deliver them to Hawaii and Japan, where they’re pointed. “The ICBM is the big issue, and how to remove them – without the ICBM they can’t do anything.”
At the Ourien “happy chicken and cafe” on nearby Beamish street (and after a ridiculously nice hot-pot of tofu and pipis), a straw poll of half-a-dozen Korean lunch-goers suggests that there are high hopes for next week’s summit. Not one expected war will break out now. “I am not worried about a possible war,” said one man. Even nuclear war? “That is the worst-case scenario. We are meeting to prevent from that. I don’t think it will happen”.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Tucked beside a bridge over the very rough end of the Cooks River are the run-down premises of the Korean Society of Sydney. Vice-president of the society, Kee-sun Lee, is hoping that next week’s on-again summit between US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore could finally declare an end to 65 years of war between the North and the South. As the pre-summit posturing intensifies, and amid reports [$] today that Trump is promising to normalise relations and invite Kim to the White House should the North denuclearise, there seems to be rising optimism in...