New York Times

Unscripted Moments Steal the Show at Trump-Kim Summit

Unscripted Moments Steal the Show at Trump-Kim Summit

President Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Tuesday, after their lunch on Sentosa Island in Singapore.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

SINGAPORE — When the President of the United States pulls out an iPad and shows the leader of North Korea a slick, bombastic video — essentially a Hollywood-style trailer presenting the North’s possible future, featuring fighter jets and missile launches cut together with images of dancing children, artisanal pizza and time-lapse sunrises over skyscrapers — you know this is not an ordinary summit meeting.

Then again, the historic encounter between President Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was never going to be just any summit.

The video — which the White House also showed to the traveling press corps before Mr. Trump answered questions at a rambling news conference — showcased the president’s reality television sensibility.

Complete with an ominous voice-over and a swelling soundtrack, the film staked out a choice for Mr. Kim without specifically mentioning nuclear weapons or sanctions relief: He could “shake the hand of peace and enjoy prosperity like he has never seen,” or slide back into “more isolation.”

From the moment the on-again, off-again summit between President Trump and Mr. Kim was declared back on just two weeks ago, it was a foregone conclusion that it would be one of the most dramatic meetings ever between two world leaders.

Although the declaration that emerged from the meeting did not substantively advance efforts to denuclearize North Korea, the symbolism of the meeting between the leaders of two enemy countries was enormous.

For Mr. Kim, a millennial dictator who has ordered the executions of 340 people, including his own uncle and half brother, it was North Korea’s de facto legitimization on the international stage, a masterful propaganda coup for the reclusive rogue state.

For Mr. Trump, it was a chance to claim his place in history, as the first sitting American president to meet a North Korean leader.

While Kim Jong-un and President Trump were photographed, the North Korean leader greeted Mr. Trump in English. “Nice to meet you Mr. President,” he said.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

Together, they created political theater like no other.

Despite the fact that the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations, all of the pageantry pointed to a meeting between near equals — from the phalanx of American and North Korean flags that stood behind the leaders as they first met, to their joint entrance into the room where they signed the declaration.

The optics of Mr. Trump shaking Mr. Kim’s hand, smiling and describing a “very special bond” between the two leaders, was in sharp contrast to Mr. Trump’s appearance at a bruising Group of 7 meeting in Canada just days earlier, where Mr. Trump had lashed out at America’s closest allies.

Mr. Kim’s meeting with Mr. Trump, on the resort island of Sentosa off the southern tip of Singapore, also had a decidedly different flavor than Mr. Kim’s first meeting in April with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea at Panmunjom, the border between the two Koreas.

That closely watched meeting, which in many ways set the stage for the Singapore summit, was expertly choreographed, with numerous images of harmony and lighthearted banter between the two leaders.

The stagecraft of Mr. Trump’s encounter with Mr. Kim did not appear as sophisticated. But there were plenty of riveting scenes, including several clearly spontaneous moments that heightened the drama.

Just after Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim took a brief stroll after lunch, the president led Mr. Kim to take a look inside the Cadillac presidential limo known as the Beast. For a second it looked as if Mr. Kim might climb inside before his aides stopped him.

And as the pair retreated to a breezeway encircling the Capella Singapore hotel, they huddled with advisers, including John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, and Kim Yo-jong, Mr. Kim’s sister.

For several minutes the group looked confused about where they were supposed to go next, with Mr. Bolton appearing particularly agitated over Mr. Trump’s shoulder.

The summit’s drama had begun the night before, when Mr. Kim emerged from his hotel after a day of seclusion and went on a sightseeing tour in Singapore.


Mr. Kim posed for a selfie with Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, on Monday.CreditNicholas Yeo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On the way up to view the Singapore skyline from the roof of the Marina Bay Sands, a hotel owned by Mr. Trump’s supporter Sheldon Adelson, Mr. Kim waved jovially at bystanders. Posing for a selfie with Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, Mr. Kim brought to mind a fraternity brother blowing off his senior thesis for a night on the town.

It was yet another sign that the 34-year-old Mr. Kim, a brutal dictator who has tortured and imprisoned thousands of citizens, is continuing to mount a charm offensive, trying to showcase a softer side.

On the morning of the summit, the day started, predictably enough, with a storm of tweets from Mr. Trump, who lashed out at “haters & losers” and declared, “We will be fine!” Just over 20 minutes before he was to meet Mr. Kim, presumably after he was already on Sentosa, he broke the shocking news that his economic adviser Larry Kudlow had suffered a heart attack.

Mr. Trump’s motorcade passed through barricaded roads and crossed the flower-lined bridge onto Sentosa about 15 minutes before Mr. Kim.

But Mr. Kim entered the hotel first. Although he is revered as a near deity at home, he is still less than half Mr. Trump’s age, and in Korean culture, respect comes with age. The person who enters the venue last is also the one with the higher status.

But for their first handshake, the two walked toward each other from two sides of a colonnaded breezeway, meeting at the top of a short flight of steps in front of the lineup of six flags from each country.

Just as he had in his meeting with Mr. Moon in Panmunjom, Mr. Kim wore an austere black Mao-style suit. Mr. Trump wore a black suit and red tie, an American flag pin on his left lapel.

The body language of the leaders suggested that Mr. Trump had assumed the role of elder statesman.

His hand shot out first to shake Mr. Kim’s hand — although he appeared to avoid the kind of heavy pumping action he has displayed with other world leaders — and he patted Mr. Kim, who looked nervous, on the arm.

Several times throughout the five-hour summit, Mr. Trump put an avuncular hand on the small of Mr. Kim’s back, although as the pair left the signing ceremony, it was Mr. Kim whose hand reached for Mr. Trump’s back.


Several times throughout the five-hour summit, Mr. Trump put an avuncular hand on the small of Mr. Kim’s back. But as the two left the signing ceremony, Mr. Kim’s hand reached for Mr. Trump’s back.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

When they moved to a room to have photographs taken before their one-on-one meeting just with interpreters, Mr. Kim greeted Mr. Trump in English. “Nice to meet you Mr. President,” he said, and after another handshake, Mr. Trump gave him a quick thumbs up.

A brief diversion from the wall-to-wall focus on the meeting came when Dennis Rodman appeared on CNN for an interview in which he advised Mr. Trump to be “really emotional” with Mr. Kim.

When the leaders joined an expanded meeting that included advisers on both sides, those watching in South Korea and the United States were surprised to see Mr. Bolton at the table, given that his remarks comparing North Korea to Libya had prompted the North to threaten to cancel the summit last month.

Missing on Mr. Kim’s side was his sister Ms. Kim, who had sat with him when he met with Mr. Moon.

Mr. Trump’s one clear effort at humor fell awkwardly. As he and Mr. Kim entered the dining room for a lunch that included beef short rib confit, sweet and sour crispy pork and Oiseon, Korean stuffed cucumber, Mr. Trump gestured to the cameramen in the room.

“Getting a good picture everybody?” he said. “So we look nice and handsome and thin? Perfect.”

It was impossible to know whether the clenched look on Mr. Kim’s face was his reaction to the quip.

Shortly before the signing ceremony, the faces of two visibly jumpy North Korean minders loomed on television screens as they appeared to push back at the cameramen who were lined up at the back of the room.

A North Korean official wearing latex gloves appeared to clean and inspect a pen lying on Mr. Kim’s side of the table. No White House aide performed a similar service for Mr. Trump.

With cameras flashing, the two leaders marched into the room side by side through double doors.

After the signing and brief remarks from both leaders, the two moved quickly back to the staircase where their meeting had begun. This time, Mr. Trump’s handshake looked more vigorous. Mr. Kim glanced over his shoulder as if eager to leave.

He walked off to his waiting aides, and Mr. Trump was left alone on the stage.

Su-hyun Lee contributed reporting from Seoul.

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