Why some South Koreans feel more positive about Kim Jong-un

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two men shake hands

Visitors to a replica of the Joint Security Area reenact the handshake between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in during their summit.

Jason Strother/PRI

During their historic summit last month inside the demilitarized zone, Korean leaders Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in grasped hands over the demarcation line that divides their countries.

Inspired by this gesture and the promise of long-awaited peace with their northern neighbor, some South Koreans are now reenacting that handshake at a replica of the Joint Security Area (JSA).

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“After seeing Moon Jae-in meet Kim Jong-un, I wanted to come here since it’s not so easy to go to the real JSA,” says 50-year-old Kang Tae-beom who stood face-to-face with his 24-year-old son on each side of a small wooden barricade that serves as a mock border.

They extended their arms and reached for each other’s hands.

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For those who can’t make it to the actual Panmunjom truce village, this film studio just outside Seoul might be the next best thing.

The outdoor set, created for director Park Chan-wook’s 2000 film “JSA,” a murder mystery that takes place in the demilitarized zone (DMZ), looks similar enough to Panmunjom with blue bunkers that straddle the border and the façade of a menacing North Korean military facility. But unlike the real JSA, there are no soldiers staring down one another from their respective posts and walking from one side to the other won’t spark an international incident.

an outdoor film set that features a replica of the Joint Security Area

Tourism to an outdoor film set that features a replica of the Joint Security Area has increased following last month’s summit between Korean leaders. 


Jason Strother/PRI


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The lot has for years been a tourist destination; busloads of schoolchildren arrive each day, couples stroll around the JSA set as well as a fabricated traditional village while others pose for pictures as they pretend to defect across the border.

And according to KOFIC Namyangju Studios, the number of visitors to the set reached 14,404 during the 2 weeks following the April 27 inter-Korean summit, a 30 percent increase compared to the same period a year ago.

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The summit, only the third of its kind and the first to take place below the border, gave South Koreans a rare look at the man who for years has been demonized by politicians and media. And thanks to the chummy relationship that Kim Jong-un appeared to strike up with Moon Jae-in, many formerly skeptical Southerners have reconsidered their opinions about the North Korean ruler, according to reports.

“My mind has changed a lot,” says Jeon Chun-suk, 59, who visited the JSA film set with her husband recently. “I used to think Kim Jong-un was cold, that he was from this secretive country, but after seeing him and since he is young and that he liked to talk, I felt he’s not so intimidating anymore.”

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“My parents told me that he killed his brother, so I was scared of him,” says 11-year-old Chung Ye-in, who came to the film studio with her family and says she watched the summit on her smartphone. “I thought he was a bad person, but after seeing him, I think he looks friendly.”

Kim is suspected of ordering the murder of his elder brother Kim Jong-nam last year in Malaysia.

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A poll taken ahead of last month’s meeting indicated the South Korean public’s perception of Kim Jong-un and North Korea in general had already started to improve. In a survey conducted in March by the Seoul-based Asan Institute For Policy Studies, favorability rose following the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, in which the Koreas fielded a joint women’s ice hockey team and walked together during the opening ceremony under a unified flag.

But the summit was a ”watershed moment” for Kim Jong-un in terms of how South Koreans feel about him, says the Asan Institute’s Go Myung-hyun.  

He explains that before this year, the public’s perception was overall negative toward Kim, but partly because of the deference and respect he showed to President Moon, a man nearly twice his age, some people were persuaded to believe that the North Korean leader was not “bloodthirsty” and instead can be trusted.

Go says fostering this positive image might be part of Pyongyang’s long-term strategy to give the impression that it’s interested in diplomacy while still holding onto its nuclear weapons, as North Korea did following previous summits with South Korean leaders in 2000 and 2007. But, he adds that if Kim Jong-un were to revert back to provoking South Korea as he did up until this year, public opinion would quickly turn against him. 

On Wednesday, North Korea abruptly called off high-level talks with Seoul and said it could reconsider holding a summit with President Trump. Statements carried by the Korean Central News Agency criticized joint US and South Korean military exercises and Washington’s alleged demand that Pyongyang unilaterally denuclearize.

This kind of back and forth between diplomacy and provocation is why Kim Hye-yeon says his opinion of Kim Jong-un didn’t change because of the summit.
Kim is “all talk,” the 78-year old said while visiting the replica JSA with friends.

“Donald Trump has to make a firm decision,” he adds. “We should help North Korea if it’s serious about changing, if not, we have to make it disappear”  

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