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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Trump wins first round but is Kim’s punch yet to come?

The North Korean leader seemed a little starstruck under the cameras in Singapore. Trump was in his element.

US President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore today. Susan Walsh  / AFP
US President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore today. Susan Walsh  / AFP

Having once traded insults and threats, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un showed a willingness for confrontation.

Their respective use of “madman” and “dotard” made matters personal. Mr Trump’s “little rocket man” and “fire and fury” on Twitter last year escalated the rhetoric, underlining how words can be weaponised.

The focus on talking tough, at that time, had meant North Korea’s nuclear arsenal came a distant second place to the personalities arguing over its future.

In Singapore, however, there was no place to hide. The two men were formally negotiating. And on Tuesday at least, it was President Trump who came out on top.

The American leader towered over Mr Kim, physically and in his delivery. Their difference in age was evident – Mr Trump is 71, around twice that of Mr Kim, who is variously estimated at between 33 and 36. If anything, the gap seemed larger.

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Mr Trump’s ubiquitous blue suit and red tie is a uniform he is comfortable in. While the importance of appearance on camera was defined in American politics by the first Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960, the current president has reshaped the medium: he was a global television star long before he ran for the White House. He knows the importance of looking good.

Underneath his make-up, Mr Trump seemed relaxed. Mr Kim on the other hand, who as controller of all North Korean media perhaps has not needed to worry as much about how he looks in public, was sweating. The high-necked, Mao-style wool suit he wore, and which looked a little thick for a city basking in 32 C temperatures, probably did not help.

While both men fidgeted with their pens, Mr Trump took the lead. The signatures were not really important by this stage. It was all for show and it was obvious who was in charge. Signing the document with his large black marker pen, the US president seemed in his element: this was dealmaking, if only the start of it. Mr Kim, whose main comment was to hail “the historic meeting and the historic document” appeared a little star struck and schoolboyish. He exhaled deeply after applying his signature. Was he wondering what the elderly generals back home, or his late father and grandfather, will make or would have made of such a moment?

The smiles had come easily but when Mr Trump and Mr Kim went to shake hands the younger man failed to hold eye contact.

Mr Trump, again dominant, looked straight through his opponent. Much like in a boxing match when the first punch sends a signal of intent this was the moment Mr Trump landed a blow. Mr Kim may be glad to be in the ring – he became the first leader of the communist North to meet a sitting US president – but he looked a little shy, perhaps even scared.

US President Donald Trump holds up a document signed by him and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un following a signing ceremony. Saul Loeb / AFP
US President Donald Trump holds up a document signed by him and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un following a signing ceremony. Saul Loeb / AFP

The same thing happened minutes later when they shook hands again. Mr Kim stared down at the table this time. His lack of composure in the face of the cameras was obvious. Again, the contrast between the two countries may serve as a partial explanation: should he so choose, Mr Kim could ensure those pictures are not aired in North Korea.

Conflict, it is said, becomes more likely when one side does not know the other. Tuesday’s meeting means that barrier has been removed. Mr Kim said the past will be left behind. But when the process is led by two men renowned for their volatility the road is unlikely to be smooth. North Korea has made promises before, only to break them. Mr Trump’s tweets can unwind his policy choices in seconds. The conversation has only just begun.

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