US-NORTH KOREA

After ‘beautiful letters’, Trump/Kim day of miracles and wonder, a ‘legendary event’

By J Brooks Spector 1 July 2019

BFFs: President Donald J. Trump (R) with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as they meet at the Freedom House on the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas, 30 June 2019. The US leader arrived in South Korean on 29 June for a two-day visit that will include a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a trip to the Demilitarized Zone. EPA-EFE/YONHAP SOUTH KOREA OUT

The past week has been an astonishing one for America watchers — friends, allies and foes alike. Between two consecutive nights of debates between those who would like to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2020, a G20 summit in Japan and a planned surprise meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, news junkies’ plates were full to overflowing.

…These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all

The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry, baby, don’t cry
Don’t cry

It was a dry wind
And it swept across the desert
And it curled into the circle of birth
And the dead sand
Falling on the children
The mothers and the fathers
And the automatic earth

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all, oh yeah…

The Boy in the Bubble — Paul Simon

Sometimes things are — as President Trump crowed after his extended, 50-minute photo opportunity with the “Young Leader” Kim Jong-un of North Korea who rules every last, solitary detail of the lives (and deaths) of the people of North Korea — “legendary events”.

In using such a word choice, the president, of course, has astonishingly conflated the fundamentally different meanings of the words “legendary” and “historic”. Legendary, of course, means a kind of Jungian fictional tale, while historic should be used to speak of events that make history, rather than just a news photo, and hours and hours of all-news television.

Weirdly calling the suddenly convened meeting with Kim at the Demilitarised Zone line that divides North and South Korea a “great honour”, Trump lauded the great relationship the two men apparently have created after the exchanges of “beautiful letters” and two output-less, prior meetings between them in Singapore and Hanoi. However, the result of this latest meeting has achieved… what, exactly?

Objectively speaking, after years of effort, North Korea now apparently has several fistfuls of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles (although the degree to which they yet have the ability to marry the two parts together successfully into a really terrible threat still remains unclear), plus gaining a kind of equivalence with the US internationally and a loving embrace of its full legitimacy by the US, despite North Korea’s truly baleful human rights and basic economic rights record. These were long-coveted goals of successive North Korean regimes. So, score two for Kim. Or even three.

Still, the two men have clearly achieved some sort of personal chemistry and both are seeing the value of such astonishing photo opportunity. Kim, of course, also managed to make the president come to him, a kind of supplicant, with just a train ride from Pyongyang, even as Trump had to travel halfway around the world for the meeting. Score one for Kim here too.

The two men apparently agreed to some kind of paired working group arrangement that, going forward, would begin to discuss actual things, such as the now-stalled nuclear talks, although the president never even mentioned publicly his earlier fundamental, bottom-line, “fist thumping on the desk” requirement of full and complete denuclearisation by North Korea.

The president is touting this meeting and its gossamer outcomes as something unprecedented, virtually since the beginning of diplomacy. However, there have actually been several agreements previously that had putatively set up energy co-operation regimes, certain forms of denuclearisation on the peninsula, and even the promise of respective liaison offices — quasi-embassies — during prior administrations. No points awarded, but advantage North Korea for the next serve?

A personal footnote to this tangled diplomatic history was the author’s own involvement, back in the mid-1990s, while working in Washington, with the creation of a slew of specially commissioned publications for the planned US liaison office that would be suitable for distribution to North Koreans, and having had a hand in the training of a US diplomat for that office.

When the liaison offices plan was shelved, the publications were already done and so they were stored on tightly wrapped pallets. Just maybe, someday they may yet be used — if they can still be located way back in the recesses of a warehouse in Seoul, Korea. Anybody need a dictionary of economic and financial terms in the North Korean variant of the peninsula’s common language?

Anyway, with Sunday’s event in Korea, both men seem to have gotten some benefit from the hastily arranged meeting. Kim has apparently gotten his insistence on getting relief from those punishing economic sanctions back on the table (without much of anything said about that denuclearisation problem). Meanwhile, Donald Trump, for his part, magician-like, managed to move the US national discussion totally away from the just-completed, two-day Democratic Party candidates debates, what with the power of the modern presidency to monopolise the news (and make it) when the president is a past master of the pacing of reality television.

And, of course, the media are entirely willing co-conspirators in this. Even though great television is not entirely the same as actual achievement, Donald Trump will undoubtedly continue to conflate the two for as long as the illusionary imagery of the days of “miracle and wonder” can be sustained. Give Trump two points, and his Pyongyang interlocutor one.

Meanwhile, in a different reality, over two successive evenings, 20 Democratic Party hopefuls tried to prove their bona fides as legitimate contenders for their presidential nomination. If on the first night, Senator Elizabeth Warren demonstrated the plausibility of her claim through her command of a full array of public policy issues, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro also made a positive impression as a thoughtful, experienced figure with a presumed appeal to both white voters as well as Hispanic ones.

Then on night two, California Senator Kamala Harris took well-timed, precisely targeted aim at presumed frontrunner Joe Biden. She honed in on the former vice president’s confusing positioning over the years on the emotive issue of school busing (something that was often front page news in the 1970s and 80s) and combined that with poignant personal testimony of her own experience as a child whose schooling had been integrated via busing back when she was in second grade in Berkeley, California.

It was an attempt to shake loose some of Biden’s so-far rock-solid support from many of today’s African American voters — and many senior, influential black politicians such as Congressmen Jim Clyburn and John Lewis. They have aligned themselves with Biden as the most electable of Democrats, and thus the man who can consign Donald Trump to that infamous dustbin of history.

While Biden was not deposed as the presumed frontrunner for the nomination by this sub-par performance — at least not until new polling says he actually has been elbowed out of that position — his sense of inevitability has been dented. To many observers watching that second debate, it seemed as if Joe Biden — a candidate who was presumably used to public debates since before some of his rivals had even been born — had been shown to be seriously out of practice and curiously deflated as a candidate.

Of course, this first debate for Biden was not a killer blow to his hopes, but his sense of inevitability and that stately walk to the nomination as Barack Obama’s heir has been dented. One thing this has guaranteed is a serious deep dive into Harris’ record as a prosecutor by opponents — for procedural problems, botched prosecutions, anything that strengthens the case of feet of clay that will trip her up if she closes in on becoming the most likely nominee.

Meanwhile, one of Trump’s sons was helpfully pushing along social media rants that Kamala Harris wasn’t really, authentically black enough, given her split heritage as the child of Jamaican and Indian parents, and having married a rich white Jewish guy. This kind of attack was quickly and forcefully denounced by many of the other would-be candidates (including Biden) who pointed to Harris’ life as just one bright example of the outcome of the contemporary American immigrant experience.

Somewhat lost in all this has been the G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan — at least as far as Donald Trump was concerned. Once again, the US president found his unnatural allies via warm, friendly meetings with autocrats and authoritarians such as Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and in a workmanlike parley with China’s Xi Jinping. By contrast, meetings with the usual leaders of liberal democracies also in Osaka were subdued and pro forma, rather than any reaffirmation of alliances, allegiances and ideals held in common such as the need to push against man-made inputs into climate change.

Yes, the meeting between Trump and Xi led to a kind of tentative truce in any worsening in the nation’s trade conflict — postponement of yet more US tariffs, relaxing US sales restrictions of key components to that demonised Chinese company, Huawei, and agreement by the Chinese to purchase large amounts of US agricultural exports. But the way this has been handled by President Trump has only fuelled the feeling by many around the globe and in the US that Donald Trump ratchets up (or even manufactures) a crisis in order to gain an edge (and then the applause) when he solves the very problem he created.

In the meantime, it suddenly seemed as if that great crisis in Venezuela; the existential threat of Iranian actions in the Strait of Hormuz, its missiles, and its potential next steps towards nuclear capabilities; the disappointments over the Palestine donor conference in Bahrain; and even that dreadful US-Mexico border crisis had all been magically waved away, almost as if they had never existed.

Instead, there is now the buzz of Donald Trump’s triumphal “kiss kiss hug hug” in the Demilitarised Zone with the man he fell in love with, formerly known as the “Little Rocket Man” (crank up that great Elton John music as the soundtrack?).

At this point, there are still great twists and turns yet to be navigated (let alone even glimpsed) in the Democratic Party’s search for a champion who can unseat the Republican incumbent. Meanwhile, the Trumpian foreign policy cavalcade lurches forward and sideways, with all its many unknowns. It must be exasperating to America’s traditional allies to deal with this, but — among its potential competitors and antagonists — it offers a virtually infinite roster of possibilities. DM

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