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, pizza and time-lapse sunrises over skyscrapers — you know this is not an ordinary summit.
The video — which the White House also showed to the traveling press corps before President Donald Trump answered questions at a rambling news conference — showcased the president’s reality TV sensibility.
Complete with an ominous voice-over and a swelling soundtrack, the film staked out a choice for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un 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 Trump and Kim was declared back on just two weeks ago, it was a foregone conclusion that it would be one of the most dramatic meetings 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 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 Trump, it was a chance to claim his place in history as the first sitting U.S. president to meet a North Korean leader. 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 U.S. 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 Trump shaking Kim’s hand, smiling and describing a “very special bond” between the two leaders, was in sharp contrast to Trump’s appearance at a bruising Group of 7 meeting in Canada just days earlier, where Trump had lashed out at America’s closest allies.
Kim’s meeting with Trump, on the resort island of Sentosa off the southern tip of Singapore, also had a decidedly different flavor than Kim’s first meeting in April with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea at the border between the two Koreas.
That closely watched meeting, which in many ways set the stage for the Singapore summit, was expertly choreographed.
The stagecraft of Trump’s encounter with Kim did not appear as sophisticated. But there were plenty of riveting scenes, including several clearly spontaneous moments that heightened the drama.
Just after Trump and Kim took a brief stroll after lunch, the president led Kim to take a look inside the Cadillac presidential limo known as the Beast. For a second it looked as if Kim might climb inside before his aides stopped him.
On the morning of the summit, Trump’s motorcade passed through barricaded roads and crossed the flower-lined bridge onto Sentosa about 15 minutes before Kim.
But Kim entered the hotel first. Although he is revered as a near deity at home, he is still less than half 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 nation.
When they moved to a room to have pictures taken before their one-on-one meeting just with interpreters, Kim greeted Trump in English. “Nice to meet you Mr. President,” he said, and after another handshake, Trump gave him a quick thumbs up.
Shortly before the signing ceremony, a North Korean official wearing latex gloves appeared to clean and inspect a pen lying on Kim’s side of the table. No White House aide performed a similar service for Trump.