A battle played out between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un on Tuesday morning.
Trump, Kim agree to remove nukes after spending ‘intensive time’ together
What body language tells us about Kim and Trump
The arena? Body language.
Both leaders arrived without a trace of a smile.
Kim pulled up first, a few minutes before 9am, with a stiff look on his face and carrying a notebook. US body language expert Patti Wood suggested this is more significant than it seemed.
“It tells us he is not planning to be off-the-cuff in the meeting,” she said. “Having other people carry his artefacts is his baseline. It may indicate more concern that he be prepared for the meeting.”
Here’s the footage of their first meeting.
Five minutes later, Trump emerged from his bulletproof car, known as “The Beast,” without a smile and empty-handed.
Wood said a punctual arrival was unusual for the US president, who kept leaders waiting twice at last week’s G7 summit. “Arriving early typically signifies that the event is important to you,” she said.
The pair walked slowly towards each other for a photo session and a long handshake.
“Both stood erect and walked in medium-length steps, which projects confidence,” said Australian body language expert Allan Pease.
First, a much-awaited moment in itself.
Trump’s signature power-grip handshake is often followed by a wrenching of the arm. Although that was not offered to Kim, he did maintain an alpha demeanor.
“Trump gives an upper-outer-arm pat that is called the ‘politician’s handshake,’ allowing the person using it to show dominance,” Wood said. He touched Kim several times on the arm, not to indicate warmth but to “signal power and Trump’s desire to look in control of the meeting.”
US diplomats are trained not to do extra power-touches, because they are a sign of disrespect, she added, but Trump is known to be a rule-breaker in his non-verbal behavior.
He physically led the North Korean leader to show control, Wood said.
If you didn’t know who they were, argued Pease, “you would conclude Trump was an older, fatherly type, directing a younger, less experienced Kim.”
Kim was trying to keep his distance during such an extended handshake, according to Dr Leow Chee Seng, co-founder of Humanology, a research, consultancy and training organization specializing in attitude and behavior, based in Kuala Lumpur.
“He does not want to tolerate Trump and the pressure he feels from his body language,” Leow said. Kim’s retaliatory tap on Trump’s shoulder shows “you need to listen to me.”
Behind the smiles
After a photo session and chat on the sidelines, Kim Jong-un offered his first smile.
In Korean culture, “the smile is more likely to be a mask to cover true emotions and appear neutral and polite” than be a display of happiness, Wood said.
Smiling widely is not always perceived as a positive thing in Korea and in some cases can be viewed as an admission of guilt or foolishness.
Trump seemed more energetic and relaxed, offering “some micro-smiling facial expressions along with his normal baseline squinting,” Wood said.
Eye to eye
During the handshake and when seated next to each other later, Trump appeared to be staring Kim down as the North Korean leader looked away then back at the president haltingly.
While some viewers used Twitter to talk about awkward eye contact, Pease explained that it was a cultural difference rather than a sign of submission. In the West, it is disingenuous not to look someone in the eye, whereas in Korean culture it is polite not to make full eye contact with someone who is elder or superior. Kim displayed the same courtesy to South Korea’s Moon when they met in April.
Such cultural differences could make room for misunderstanding between the leaders. The US president could make his own interpretation of Kim’s seemingly deferential behavior and get a confidence boost, said Jenna Gibson, director of communications at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington.
“He might think, ‘This guy who is supposedly so scary in North Korea isn’t able to look me in the eye,’” said Gibson.
But, she said, Kim can show some flexibility.
“Kim knows Trump doesn’t know anything about Korean culture, and also knows Trump is particularly informal, even compared with other American presidents,” Gibson said.
“I think Kim will give Trump a bit of leeway on any possible cultural misunderstandings.”
Before leaving the G7 meeting in Canada to travel to Singapore on Saturday, Trump had said he would sense “within the first minute” of meeting Kim whether he was serious in his intentions, and would know from “my touch, my feel.”
Time will tell if Trump’s sense of touch has let him down.
Additional reporting from Marie Lee