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In Koreatown, historic summit is a moment many thought they’d never witness

At a McDonald's in Koreatown on Friday morning, the historic summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dominated conversations at nearly every table.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

One man stayed up past 5 a.m. to watch history being made. Another awoke at 3 a.m. and turned on the news. Still others perused stacks of newspapers for details of the events 6,000 miles away.

In Los Angeles’ Koreatown, news of the historic summit between the leaders of North and South Korea was met early Friday with tears, skepticism and, for some, a long-awaited glimmer of hope.

The joint announcement that the two nations will work toward denuclearizing the peninsula, establishing lines of communication and formally ending the Korean War came in the wee hours in Los Angeles, home to the largest community of Koreans in the U.S.

The news was particularly poignant for the dozens of elderly Korean Americans who frequent a McDonald’s in the heart of Koreatown, for whom the war isn’t a page in the history books but a vivid childhood memory. Friday morning at the fast-food joint, where coffee is cheap and company ample, the summit was at the center of conversations at almost every table.

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“I was ecstatic, all smiles. It almost felt like we were going to be reunified soon,” said Johng Suk Ahn, 79, who grew up in a part of South Korea’s Gangwon province near the border with the North and got separated from her parents and two sisters amid the war.

Ahn recounted having friends on both sides when she was a child, the border marked only by the occasional wooden stake in the ground.

“There’s going to be no more fighting, and a train is going to run. And it’s going to happen before I die,” she said.

“Maybe it’ll become like East and West Germany,” her daughter, 57-year-old Yong Kistler, chimed in.

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Ahn is one of the more than 7 million Korean expatriates who South Korean President Moon Jae-in acknowledged would be watching Friday’s carefully orchestrated summit, broadcast live around the world. “The expectations of North and South Korean citizens, as well as our overseas compatriots, are very high,” Moon said in his introductory remarks.

The 12-hour meeting, which marked the first time a North Korean head of state set foot in South Korea, was replete with symbolic gestures and grand statements about the summit’s historic significance.

Jae Su An, 83, sat with four church friends digging into hotcakes while carefully analyzing every facial expression, hand gesture and body movement of the two leaders he had watched all night.

“If it goes as they said, that’s to be welcomed.... But is he just putting on a show? I couldn’t tell,” he said, referring to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. An said that when Kim first appeared on the screen, his face looked colorless and without a hint of a friendly smile; North Korea’s leader, he said, sat slouched to one side while Moon sat upright.

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“If we go soft, we might end up paying for it,” An said. “These rapid developments are scary.”

His friend, Min Kyu Park, said he noticed that Kim’s military entourage saluted Moon, though the South Korean officers did not do the same for his counterpart.

“It won’t be like before,” Park said. “He won’t be like his father and grandfather.”

At another table, the consensus was that however symbolic, any agreement between the Koreas mattered little. They said they were waiting to see what comes out of the scheduled meeting between Kim and President Trump.

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“It’s all up to the U.S. We Koreans don’t have the power,” said Sung Kyun Chang, 78.

He said he was moved watching Moon’s spontaneous step over to the north side of the border, but he remained wary of Kim’s true intentions. Chang, whose family is from the Hwanghae province in what is now North Korea, said he still can hear the bombings and picture the dead from when the war broke out. He was in fifth grade.

“People of my age lived through war, and we know just how devastating it is.” he said. “That’s why I don’t trust them … but I hope for the best, and hope that he keeps his promises.”

Michelle Song, 70, said she felt something welling up inside and teared up watching the live broadcast. She and her sister, watching from their living room, broke out in applause, she said.

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Even in the days leading up to the summit, Song said, she didn’t truly believe it would happen.

“But it’s not a dream, it happened before our eyes,” she said. “It’s like a miracle.”

victoria.kim@latimes.com

Twitter: @vicjkim

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