Jul 01, 2020
One Year Ago Today, Donald Trump Visited North Korea
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One year ago today, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made history—and entertained the world in the process. Trump, a man who takes showmanship to a whole new level, walked across the Demilitarized Zone and became the first U.S. president to step foot on North Korean soil.It was the kind of act that ded both leaders with the opportunity to masquerade as statesmen.
“This has a lot of significance because it means that we want to bring an end to the unpleasant past and try to create a new future,” Kim told reporters on that day. Trump returned the favor. “Stepping across that line was a great honor. A lot of progress has been made, a lot of friendships have been made, and this has been in particular a great friendship.”
As with everything Trump does on a daily basis, his actions on that late June afternoon divided pundits and Korea analysts. While the usual naysayers blasted the entire episode as a publicity stunt—Sukjoon Yoon, a former captain in the South Korean navy, called the meeting “a shallow exercise in personal promotion by the three leaders [Trump, Kim, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in] for their domestic ends”—others weren’t as dismissive of the symbolism. Devin Stewart of the Carnegie Council wrote that “The photo-op gives both Kim and Trump domestic political cover to stave off calls from hawkish advisers for a more hostile approach toward the relationship.” Eric Gomez of the Cato Institute commented that, assuming Trump and Kim could maintain the momentum, the meeting along the DMZ provided a pretext to keep the U.S.-North Korea relationship from completely falling apart. It was a valid point to make at the time, when the entire diplomatic effort was struggling to keep its head above water after months of inaction.
Unfortunately, Trump’s diplomatic foray with Pyongyang hasn’t moved an inch over the last 12 months. Beyond the occasional letter in the mail, Trump and Kim’s attempt to rekindle diplomacy on June 30, 2019 has disintegrated like an old piece of fruit wasting away on the vine—a product of two parties, the United States and North Korea, uninterested in doing anything other than lecturing about one another’s bad behavior and incapable of contemplating any diplomatic roadmap that doesn’t lead to total capitulation.
The bottom line: the last year has been nothing short of an opportunity lost for both sides.
The Kim regime has been its usual pugnacious self, citing Washington’s “hostile policy” for the dozens of missile tests it has conducted since May 2019 and as the prime reason why Pyongyang can’t afford to denuclearize. When North Korean negotiators sat down with Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun and his team in October 2019, they excoriated the U.S. for pitching lame ideas which demonstrated Washington’s lack of sincerity. The State Department of course strongly disagreed with that characterization, but the damage was already done. Either North Korean diplomats seated around the table on that day weren’t authorized to discuss nuclear weapons, or they weren’t interested in the first place (perhaps both).
The Trump administration has spent the last 12 months regurgitating its top-line position—the United States is interested in peace on the Korean Peninsula and a new relationship with Pyongyang, but only if Kim dismantles a nuclear deterrent his family dynasty has spent countless dollars over decades building. The administration’s outreach (if you could call it that) is a recitation of the same theme, despite zero evidence Kim Jong-un is even slightly more open to eliminating his nuclear arsenal today as he was when he first inherited power from his father nearly a decade ago. Sure, the Trump administration continues to say it’s open to diplomacy with the North—Biegun made this point during a webinar on June 29. But in Pyongyang, these entreaties tend to go in one ear and out the other. Without a fundamental shift in the U.S. position, Kim or his people don’t have much of a reason to give Trump another televised summit. What’s the point of going through the hassle of organizing the logistics of a meeting if the meeting itself will be one more glorified talk-a-thon, where the same, old stances get rehearsed?
Where does this leave us for the rest of the year? Unfortunately, the picture isn’t encouraging. There is always a risk in predicting what North Korea will do—who, after all, would have successfully predicted the destruction of the inter-Korean liaison office, the severing of North-South communication links, blusters from Kim Yo-jong about further military actions against Seoul and the sudden suspension of those actions…all in a few weeks time?
But at this moment (barring some unforeseen event), it sure looks like the remainder of the year will look like the last 12 months—offers of dialogue squandered; the prototypical State Department press release requesting Pyongyang fulfill its obligations under the 2018 Singapore statement; KCNA dispatches waxing about how Washington isn’t to be trusted; and a few more missile tests along the way.
In a phrase: expect more of the same.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to the National Interest.
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The Wuhan-Set Movie That Donald ‘Chinese Virus’ Trump Needs to See
In the Chinese director Diao Yi’nan’s latest film, The Wild Goose Lake—streaming now on Apple TV+—details are located not in narrative but in atmosphere. The key for the restless viewer—perhaps still in lockdown in the midst of a global pandemic—is to not get lost in the story, but to be present in place.
Zhou Zenong, a motorbike thief involved in an extensive crime syndicate, is on the run from the law, having mistakenly shot a police officer after being attacked himself by a fellow gang member. A young, still-faced sex worker—Liu Ai’ai—with a chic olive handbag and a red and white pack of cigarettes meets him at South train station, in Wuhan. They don’t know each other, but both operate in a fast-moving and often ruthless undercommons. This is the Wild Goose Lake district, which, a police chief points out, is still “uncontrolled,” elusive. And the stillness with which Diao imbues every frame demands that we look deeper into the soul of this world than the status quo would allow.
Wuhan, of course, is a place that Donald Trump has maligned with his xenophobic and racist dog whistles, claiming that the novel coronavirus was somehow concocted in the city where brave health-care workers and locals first encountered the outbreak of the virus in late 2019 and were able to beat it back earlier this year. (In the U.S., the woefully insufficient response to the virus has led to a new increase in cases in many reopened states, and Trump’s administration has just decided to withdraw the country from the only true authority on the matter, the World Health Organization.) Trump’s claims have led directly to hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans in the U.S. The Wild Goose Lake, expansive in its depiction of a relatively tiny corner of the huge Wuhan, offers a reminder of how small the imaginations of our leaders are.
The Wild Goose Lake is a supremely stylish film, and so it’s easy to worry that Diao has elided some deeper intellectual meaning for beauty’s sake. However, that binary doesn’t hold—the film’s depth is in the constraints posed by its style: the black market subsists on various sleights of hand or alternately subtle and flagrant maneuvers around law and order. What emerges from these images are questions about who exactly is the master of this underground art. Like any neo-noir, the sex worker femme fatale is never transparent. Yet neither is our anti-hero Zenong, who doesn’t say much, and when he does, often refuses to commit to a single set of intentions. Of course, the police also lie, as do the various bosses both Zenong and Ai’ai are indebted to. Even Zenong’s estranged wife must choose complicity—though to who, exactly? There’s no sturdy backbone of righteousness present in this world, and perhaps not even beyond it; your loyalties remain diffuse until the very end.
It’s a compelling set-up for a film in a world marked not merely by misinformation but active distortion and spin. No one in The Wild Goose Lake has illusions about authoritative benevolence, which, in the end, saves them a lot of trouble. Instead, each character works out a puzzle of interpersonal alliances; real trust is exceptional, an intimacy only reserved for an unexpected coupling that I won’t reveal here.“I look forward to focusing more on quieter films as our new physically-distant reality expands into an unknown future.”
Like Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s similarly quiet thriller from last year, The Whistlers, communication in The Wild Goose Lake becomes a vector endowed with constantly evolving symbols. There are looks, shoulder brushes, turned backs, slurped noodles, and clutched possessions. Spoken language is either a formality or means of control—you have to take your cues from the body. In that way, it’s a film marked by a feminine impulse, which is to say that mastery—of the undercommons as well as above-board society—is not in brute dominance but in skillful mirroring.
I look forward to focusing more on quieter films as our new physically distant reality expands into an unknown future. The difficulty in being present in moments like these is that the practice allows so much in—noise, talk, or plot can feel forgiving in what it determinedly leaves out. But this new way of being is a welcome reminder that in fact there are films worth returning to, stories that can’t simply be heard or seen, but must be steeped in. The Wild Goose Lake offers some of this year’s most compelling questions about social order, specifically about how we might situate ourselves in a world that seems to reject us.