Surreal Trump-Kim summit defies diplomatic playbook

- Juni 03, 2018

How do you plan a high-stakes meeting between a freewheeling American president and a paranoid Asian dictator?

The world is about to find out.

As President Donald Trump prepares to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, officials from both countries are working overtime to prepare for a June 12 nuclear summit in Singapore.

The event is unprecedented: A sitting U.S. president has never met with his North Korean counterpart. Kim had never even met with a fellow head of state before a March visit to Beijing.

In theory, traditional diplomatic protocols will apply. In reality, anything could happen. Here’s a look at some of the issues organizers are grappling with as they scramble to arrange this extraordinary meeting:


Security and insecurities

Summit planners are sure to be intensely focused on security, and not just because Trump is sitting down with the leader of a regime that is technically still at war with the U.S. — the 1950-1953 Korean War was never officially ended — and which threatened a nuclear “showdown” with America less than two weeks ago.

While Kim and Trump are presumed to be safe from one another, the North Korean leader is famously wary of threats to his life. According to media accounts, reporters on a flight to Singapore saw a senior Kim aide reading a briefing paper that said, “in order to guarantee the results of the U.S.-North Korea summit meeting, guarantee the safety of Chairman Kim Jong Un above all else.”

Kim’s concerns about his security were on full display during his April 27 meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. At one point, 12 of his bodyguards jogged in formation alongside the vehicle carrying him in the Korean border village of Panmunjom.

The White House would not share information about the security plan, but analysts said details are likely being hashed out by the U.S. Secret Service, North Korean officials and Singaporean security operatives. All are expected to play key roles the day of the meeting.

Aside from ensuring Kim and Trump’s physical safety, officials also will want to prevent spies and surveillance from penetrating the talks. Outside parties with an interest in the talks include the Chinese and the Russians, both of whom have tense relations with the United States.


Let’s get physical

With the entire world watching, even the smallest interactions will be studied for deeper meaning and signs of psychological advantage. This could be especially unnerving for Kim, according to North Korea experts.

While it is virtually unthinkable for a North Korean to touch Kim without permission, Trump is famous for making alpha-male physical contact with politicians, FBI directors and foreign leaders. He is famous for an aggressive handshake, dubbed “clasp and yank,” in which Trump pulls his visitor toward him, putting that person off-balance. “My guess is Kim Jong Un’s advisers are helping him prepare for this,” said Peter Selfridge, who served as U.S. chief of protocol from 2014 to 2016.

But Kim isn’t afraid of bodily contact: When he met with South Korea’s Moon in April, for instance, the pair hugged one another and even held hands as they crossed the border between their nations.

Another possible concern of the North Koreans: the height differential between Kim and Trump. Kim is thought to be roughly 5’7” while Trump stands around 6’2’’.

That gap can be narrowed some, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has recalled of her 2000 meeting with Kim’s father in Pyongyang: “I was wearing heels, but so was he, which made us about the same height.”

The younger Kim did allow himself to be photographed in April shaking hands with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is significantly taller than him. A basketball fan, he has also been snapped standing next to a visiting 6’7” former NBA star Dennis Rodman. Still, if Kim is sensitive about being seen looking up to the U.S. president, he may insist that the pair be seated when cameras are present.

Then there is the more complicated question of how Trump and Kim will interact in conversation.

The North Korean leader has a well-earned reputation as a grim tyrant who casually executes his critics. But in his rare public meetings with foreign diplomats, Kim has come across as friendly and even jovial, joking to Moon about the poor state of North Korea’s roads.

Trump has sent mixed signals about his feelings about Kim, so it’s anyone’s guess how the U.S. president will greet the North Korean. Last year, Trump dubbed Kim a “madman” and “little rocket man,” while Kim shot back that Trump was a “dotard.”

But speaking outside the White House on Friday, Trump struck a much more optimistic tone. “I think we’re going to have a relationship, and it will start on June 12th,” he said of Kim.

Complicating matters is the almost cult-like nature of Kim’s image in North Korea, which demands worshipful treatment of a man whose full official title is “Dear Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army.” Trump referred to Kim on Friday as “the chairman.”

The closest historical analogy to the Kim-Trump summit that analysts typically point to is U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visits with Chinese leader Mao Zedong in February 1972. Nixon’s weeklong stay in mainland China was part of a rapprochement between America and the Asian country’s communist government. Mao and Nixon seemed to have a good rapport, and were caught on camera several times shaking hands and smiling.

When it comes to talks with a ruthless dictator, even a smile can be political.

When Bill Clinton visited North Korea to retrieve two detained American journalists in 2009, he conspicuously avoided smiling in a photo with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, then the country’s leader.

And when Pompeo met with Kim two months ago, he wore a muted expression for an official photo in which Kim even seemed to frown.

But an official White House photo showed Trump beaming Friday as he posed with a senior envoy from North Korea who delivered a letter from Kim.


Eat, drink and be wary

While a specific venue has not yet been announced, the likely options include some of Singapore’s tony resort hotels. Once a spot is selected, the protocol handlers will sweat even the smallest details of the d├ęcor.

How big is the table? Where will each side sit? What type of water do the delegates prefer – sparking or flat? Are the countries’ flags the exact same size? Even flower arrangements, if any, must be vetted — including an accounting for possible allergies.

If there’s a meal involved, the delegations will have worked out the menu in advance. Alcohol can pose special complications. Trump, for instance, is a teetotaler, while Kim is known to enjoy wine.

So did his father: “I spent much of the evening trying to fend off the North Korean delegation’s aggressive style of drinking, which appeared to require the constant refilling of glasses and near-continuous toasts,” Albright recalled.

When two nations are struggling for a negotiating advantage, even a menu can seem to be biased. Singaporean cuisine might be a neutral alternative to American or Korean dishes, but, according to Selfridge, another possibility is a menu that includes staples common to both palates, such as beef or rice. (Pompeo reported that “American beef” had been the main course when he dined with a visiting senior North Korean official in New York City last week.)

White House and State Department protocol officers are tasked with ensuring that negotiators are not distracted from the weighty topics at hand — and so that the media doesn’t focus on facts like whether one country’s flag was bigger than the other’s.

Capricia Marshall, who served as the U.S. chief of protocol from 2009 to 2013, said that the rules of diplomatic protocol are widely known and agreed upon. “The expectations are set out, and you hope that countries will stick to those universal set of rules,” she said.

But it always helps to be ready for the unexpected.

In 1991 in Madrid, Spain, the United States and the Soviet Union co-sponsored at peace conference that brought together Israelis, Syrians and others in the Middle East. A diplomatic incident was averted when organizers hurriedly removed from one room a large painting of Charles V massacring the Moors, which could have offended the Arab guests.

To communique or not to communique

Presidential summits are usually the last step in a negotiation process after months, even years, of talks among lower-level aides. Trump and Kim have turned that process upside down, and it’s anyone’s guess what the next step will be.

Analysts do not expect the face-to-face Trump-Kim meeting to last too long – perhaps a few hours, including ceremonial photo-ops – and the sense is that both sides are really only prepared to talk about broad outlines of a nuclear agreement.

While the details are still being hashed out, the meeting will likely include both leaders as well as their top aides, and, of course, translators. If there is a separate one-on-one session between Trump and Kim (as well as translators) it will likely be brief, Korea experts say.

What will be key is whether a joint communique is issued afterward and what exactly it says. Such statements are typically negotiated largely in advance, though some critical pieces may be filled in toward the end of the gathering.


If there is no joint statement issued, that could signal that the two sides could not come to terms on even broad outlines – a bad sign for prospects of a deal. Any individual statements issued afterward will then be parsed for existing differences.

If the two sides announce they will meet again, even at lower levels, that could be a good sign. Trump already has said the upcoming summit may be the first of several between him and Kim.

The art of the gift

Gift exchanges are standard in such summits, though they often happen behind the scenes with details publicized afterward.

When Albright visited North Korea, she gave Kim’s father a basketball signed by Michael Jordan. (Like his son, Kim Jong Il loved basketball.)

North Korea is so proud of the gifts its leaders have received that more than 100,000 of them are on display in a mountainside museum called the International Friendship Exhibition Hall.

“Identifying the right gift for Kim Jong Un will be a delicate task,” said Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It should neither insult nor unduly honor the leader.”

One factor the U.S. delegation will want to consider is whether the gift Trump gives Kim will violate any U.S. sanctions on North Korea. (On a trip to Pyongyang in June 2017, Rodman gave North Korea’s sports minister a copy of Trump’s infamous book, “The Art of the Deal,” with the intent that it reach Kim.)

What Kim gives Trump in return will also be watched carefully. In the past, North Korean leaders have given foreign counterparts gifts ranging from puppies to Matsutake mushrooms, a prized delicacy.

Meet the press?

Although reporters will clamor for a press conference, it is hard to imagine Kim — who rarely speaks to his own people and tolerates only an uncritical state media — will allow American reporters to ask him unscripted questions.

More likely is that both Trump and Kim will at some point make short statements before the cameras, as Kim did when he met with South Korea’s Moon in April.

It could be in Kim’s interest to improvise, given that his flashes of humor during his remarks next to Moon drew international notice and may have softened, however slightly, his severe image.

“We brought cold noodles from Pyongyang. I hope the president will enjoy the noodles from far away,” Kim said as he sat across from Moon, adding: “Well, I can’t say that they came from far away.”

Trump trashes the U.S. media but often uses sit-downs with foreign leaders as an opportunity to answer reporters’ questions. It’s not clear whether the seriousness of this particular meeting will prompt Trump to ignore any shouted queries.

As Trump often puts it, “We’ll see what happens.”


 

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