Unscripted Moments Steal the Show at Trump-Kim Singapore Summit

Unscripted Moments Steal the Show at Trump-Kim Singapore Summit

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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 — The president of the United States pulled out an iPad and showed the leader of North Korea a slick, Hollywood-style trailer presenting the North’s possible future.

There were images of fighter jets and missile launchings cut together with shots of dancing children, pictures of artisanal pizza and time-lapse sunrises over skyscrapers.

This was no ordinary summit meeting.

Then again, no one really thought the historic encounter between President Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was going to be just any encounter.

The meeting between these two figures — one a former reality television star and the other a dictator who has tortured and imprisoned thousands of citizens, and ordered executions, including of his own uncle and half brother — was expected to include lots of theatrics.

And it did.

The video came complete with an ominous voice-over and a swelling soundtrack as it described Mr. Kim’s choice without 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.”

Before the meeting, Mr. Kim posed for a selfie with Singapore’s foreign minister, as if he were a fraternity brother blowing off his senior thesis for a night on the town.

During the meeting, Mr. Trump let Mr. Kim peek inside the Cadillac presidential limo known as the Beast, and for a second it looked as if Mr. Kim might climb inside.

Video

During a meeting in Singapore, Donald Trump presented Kim Jong-un with a short video depicting the prosperity that could come with peace. James Poniewozik, The Times’s chief television critic, tells us the video’s cartoonish, idealized aesthetic was no accident.Published On

And before the signing ceremony, a North Korean official wearing latex gloves appeared to clean and inspect a pen meant for Mr. Kim. No White House aide performed a similar service for Mr. Trump.

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

For Mr. Kim, it was North Korea’s de facto legitimization on the international stage, a masterly propaganda coup for his isolated 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.

Even though the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations, all of the pageantry pointed to a meeting between near equals — from the row 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 a declaration.

The optics of Mr. Trump shaking Mr. Kim’s hand, smiling and describing a “very special bond” between them, was in sharp contrast to Mr. Trump’s appearance at a bruising Group of 7 meeting in Canada just days earlier, where Mr. Trump 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.

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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

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

The stagecraft of Mr. Trump’s encounter with Mr. Kim did not appear to be 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 following lunch came Mr. Kim’s chance to check out the Beast. Mr. Kim’s aides stopped him from getting inside.

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 meeting’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.

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 G. Adelson, Mr. Kim waved jovially at bystanders. Then he took the selfie with Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan.

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

It was yet another sign that the 34-year-old Mr. Kim is continuing to mount a charm offensive, trying to showcase a softer side.

On the morning of the summit meeting, 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 top 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 a site last is also the one with the higher status.

For their first handshake, the two walked toward each other from two sides of a colonnaded breezeway, meeting on a red carpet 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, with 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.

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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

Several times throughout the five-hour meeting, 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.

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 meeting last month.

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President Trump and Kim Jong-un of North Korea have completed their landmark meeting. Our Tokyo bureau chief, Motoko Rich, was live in Singapore on the New York Times Facebook page, where she answered questions about what happened and what it means.Published On

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.

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 red carpet 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.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Pageantry Aside, a Summit Drama Built on Impromptu Moments. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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