Anticipation is high among some locals with really good reasons for watching President Donald Trump's historic Tuesday summit with the North Korean leader.
Expectations, though, remain rather low.
That's because Trump is unpredictable, and Kim Jong Un isn't trustworthy. So say some Korean Americans from Modesto with North Korean ancestry. According to the 2016 U.S. Census estimate, 659 Korean-born people live in Stanislaus County.
"My general impression: I'm hopeful, but doubtful," summed up Eungsuk Kim, a professor at California State University, Stanislaus, whose parents fled from North to South Korea during the North's communist takeover several decades ago. If anything positive comes of Tuesday's meeting, he said, you probably can thank previous administrations for laying difficult groundwork.
His wife, Hyewon Hong, said Trump "deserves some credit. But we don't know what he's up to."
Sunney Joo, a self-described "housewife with an interest in politics" whose parents also escaped from the north, agreed that the Singapore summit is fascinating. "But I'm skeptical," she said.
Recent polling from Quinnipiac University suggests optimism among Americans: 72 percent of respondents think the summit is a good thing. But experts are wary, openly doubting whether negotiating can lead to the north's denuclearization without a ton more work. The separate Koreas have been warring, literally and diplomatically, for nearly seven decades, after all.
"This is not going to be solved with one meeting," Eungsuk Kim said. "The meeting could turn out to be more like a photo op."
The North's dictator is desperate to unburden his struggling economy from sanctions, many pundits say, and may be willing to give up nuclear arms.
But few know Korean peninsula economics like Eungsuk Kim, a Stanislaus State economics professor. And he says it's more about Kim Jong Un struggling to preserve the power of a family dynasty started by his grandfather in the 1950s.
"The economic situation is second; first is stability of the regime," Eungsuk Kim said.
But don't dictators have complete control? What's he worried about?
"You know what happened in Syria?" Eungsuk Kim said, evoking the civil war that has torn that country apart for seven years, despite Pres. Bashar al-Assad's brutal rule.
In North Korea, elimination of enemies is routine, said Eungsuk Kim, including execution of members of the dictator's extended family.
Joo said, "Kim is a very cruel guy, and will do everything to stay in power. It's a political game, and he's not a trustworthy person."
Trump's roller-coaster rhetoric, meanwhile, leaves one wondering.
A few months ago, the U.S. president called Kim "little rocket man" and threatened "fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” In recent weeks, Trump called him "very honorable." Then the summit was off, and now it's on again. And Trump lately floated the idea of inviting Kim to the White House, depending on how they get along in Singapore.
"It's so out of (the norm for) conventional diplomatic talk," Eungsuk Kim said.
"This is a global issue," he continued. "You can't solve a global problem with this 'America first' attitude. That worries me."
Modesto's Dave Thomas noted that Trump rekindled the summit only after Kim Jong Un was forced to show better behavior.
"I like his style," Thomas said of the U.S. president, predicting, "he would be a great combat commander because he would fake you out."
"People may not like (his tactics)," Thomas said. "(Screw) 'em. You want to play poker? He's damned good at it."
In a hallway of Thomas' Modesto home hangs a proclamation of thanks issued to him by the chief of a Korean county in 1969, when Thomas served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Framed art made of rice and linen — gifts from South Koreans he taught English — also appear.
He was serving as an intelligence officer when Thomas, who speaks Greek and Russian in addition to English, was tapped to learn Korean. Officially dubbed a "Cold War officer," other duties ranged from commanding a tank unit to running medical missions in remote mountain villages to interacting with civilians, in their language, and he stayed 14 months. The 1953 armistice remained in place in the late 1960s, but hostilities — often violent, sometimes deadly — were common.
"Did Korea leave an impression on me? Damn right it did," said Thomas. He became a public figure in Modesto as a conservative radio talk show host in the early 2000s and continues to hold government leaders accountable, particularly in taxing and finance issues.
Tuesday's summit is "a big deal," Thomas said. "They look like they could sign a cessation of hostilities. Once you have peace, economic benefits follow."
Don't hold your breath, the Korean Americans said, for the north and south to forgive, forget and reunite.
Eungsuk Kim and Joo have little interest in seeking out relatives they've never met in North Korea, or visiting where their parents came from.
"The sentiment for reunification is not as strong as it was for the first generation," Kim said.
Hong said the second and third generations care even less.
"They'd rather have a good job," Kim said.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390