SINGAPORE: US President Donald Trump (right) shakes hands with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un as they sit down for their historic US-North Korea summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island yesterday. – AFP

SINGAPORE: Steadily, almost warily, the two leaders approached each other on a colonnaded verandah, their hands outstretched as a gaggle of media watched from a platform and the rest of the world looked on. Weeks in the making after decades of war, antagonism and venom, the first encounter between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump was a crucial moment. Within the first minute in Singapore, the US president had proclaimed, he would know whether a deal over the North’s nuclear arsenal was possible.

The drive to the venue took both men through the tourist enclave of Sentosa island and past the towers of Shrek’s castle at a Universal Studios theme park. But they emerged from their limousines grim and unsmiling, and the first few moments of their meeting appeared uneasy. As the two shook hands for around 13 seconds, Trump reached out to touch Kim’s shoulder, looking down at the shorter man as he spoke. The two turned to face the cameras in front of a dozen American and North Korean flags, upright and unsmiling.

But as Trump ushered the North Korean towards their meeting room, Kim’s lips creased into the beginnings of a smile, and the two men visibly relaxed the moment they turned off the stage at the Capella Hotel. They chatted and smiled as they went into the first-ever one-on-one encounter between a leader of the North and a sitting US president. The first minute of the meeting, Trump said, had felt “really great”. “I think it’s going to be really successful and I think we will have a terrific relationship, I have no doubt.”

‘Not easy’

Held on a former British military base, the summit came 65 years after Pyongyang’s Chinese-backed forces fought the US-led UN coalition to a standstill in the Korean War, and followed years of increasing tensions over the North’s banned nuclear and ballistic weapons programs. According to the South Korean news agency Yonhap, it was the first time the US and North Korean emblems had been officially displayed side-by-side since the New York Philharmonic played a concert in Pyongyang in 2008.

In Seoul, South Korean President Moon Jae-in – whose country remains technically at war with the North – watched live ahead of a cabinet meeting. “I, too, could hardly sleep last night,” he told his ministers, hoping for a “new era among the two Koreas and the United States”.Sitting across from Trump at a small side table, Kim told the US president through a translator: “It was not easy to get here. The past worked as fetters on our limbs and the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles on our way forward,” he went on, his listener looking him in the eye and nodding. “But we overcame all of them and we are here today.” Trump responded “That’s true,” before another handshake – smiling this time – and a thumbs-up from the US president.

The clasps represented an agreement to overcome decades of hostile relations, said Koh Yu-hwan, professor at Dongguk University. It was more formal than Kim’s encounters with his neighbors – the North Korean leader used both hands when he met Chinese President Xi Jinping, and embraced the South’s President Moon Jae-in at their second summit in the Demilitarized Zone last month. But Koh told AFP: “Right now, it’s the first meeting between the heads of two enemy states so they can’t exchange friendly hugs. “Technically, we are still in a state of war,” he added. “But if the talks go well, they could end it with a hug.”

Body language

In their first moments of meeting each other, Trump and Kim both sought to project a sense of command but displayed some anxiety at the start of their high-stakes summit. Body language experts said that in the 13 seconds or so the US president held on to the hand of Kim for the first time, he projected his usual dominance by reaching out first, and patting the North Korean leader’s shoulder. Not to be outdone, Kim firmly pumped Trump’s hand, looking him straight in the eye for the duration, before breaking off to face the media.

“It wasn’t a straight-out handshake,” said Allan Pease, an Australian body language expert and author of several books on the topic, including “The Definitive Guide to Body Language”. “It was up and down, there was an argy-bargy, each one was pulling the other closer. Each guy wasn’t letting the other get a dominant grip,” he told Reuters by telephone from Melbourne.

Ahead of the meeting, Trump had said he would be able to work out within the first minute whether his North Korean counterpart was serious about making peace. Projecting authority comes easily to Trump, who as a global leader, businessman and former television personality is well-versed in using body language effectively. He also has a height advantage over Kim. While both men walked to the library where they held their first face-to-face meeting, Trump sought to ease any tension in the air by chatting to Kim, and letting him walk slightly ahead.

Trump, however, maintained control over the chat by patting Kim, and using his hand to guide him, who is almost half his age, into the room. Kim also patted Trump, in an attempt to assert control. He mainly looked down, listening, as Trump spoke, but did look up at several times during the conversation. “Donald Trump was talking in conciliatory terms, almost submissive, but his body language was clearly saying ‘I am in charge here’,” Pease said. “If you didn’t know who these people were, you’d say the big guy was the father and the little guy is the son.”

Desire for dominance

Karen Leong, Managing Director of Singapore-headquartered Influence Solutions, said Trump did not display any of the hostility seen at the G7 summit in Canada last week, during which the US leader blasted allies including the European Union and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over trade. A photograph showing Trump sitting with his arms folded as German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks was seen as defining the acrimonious nature of those talks.

Still, Trump’s desire for dominance was on display. “Whenever they’re shaking hands, you can see the whites of their fingertips – these two guys are alpha males,” Leong said. “They both want to show dominance and that is why there’s this bone-crushing handshake.” However, Leong said both found it difficult to conceal their nervousness once they were seated, with Trump displaying a slanted smile, and fidgeting with his hands and Kim leaning and staring at the ground. “Trump is a gambler and he’s gambling on being able to rein in North Korea like a parent does to naughty child,” Leong said.

This contrasted with Kim, who had comparatively less to lose, having already scored a major win through Trump’s agreement to meet him. Kim’s first major interaction with the international community also betrayed a sense of awe and wonder as he faced the rapid fire shutters of photographers in the opulence of the Singapore luxury hotel where the meeting took place. “Kim looked a bit like a kid in a theme park: Not intimidating, excited and a bit nervous,” Pease added. – Agencies