For several tense months, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un engaged in threats of nuclear war. The world watched as the two called each other names like “little rocket man” and “dotard.” Yet in a surprising turn of events, a historic summit was quickly organized and the leaders sat down to talk about peace.
Here we’ll look at the what the two men’s body language really meant during their meeting in Singapore on June 12, 2018. See how cultural differences dictated their smiles (page 4) and how Kim reacted to seeing Trump’s million-dollar custom limousine (page 8).
1. The entrance
When they first met, both leaders entered by walking purposefully toward each other from opposite ends of a room. This was a powerful moment on the world stage, and both men knew it. Cameras flashed aplenty as the leaders stood together in front of U.S. and North Korean flags. “Both stood erect and walked in medium-length steps, which projects confidence,” said Australian body language expert Allan Pease.
It should be noted both were punctual for the meeting, arriving in their respective armored limousines. Kim carried a notebook, which suggests concern for being prepared.
Next: Did Trump employ his famous grip-of-death handshake?
2. The handshake
As the men approached on the stage, Trump was first to offer his hand to shake. This much-awaited moment consisted of a handshake that lasted around nine seconds. Trump did not seem to employ the white-knuckled death grip he famously gave to French President Emmanuel Macron in May 2017.
Trump initiated most of the handshakes throughout their time together. The two shook hands at least nine times during the summit. Kim might not have initiated handshakes for cultural reasons. “In Korean culture, a young person does not suggest a handshake to an older person,” said Kim Hyung-hee, director of the Korea Body Language Lab.
Next: Who initiated more touches
3. Touching of arms and backs
Putting one’s hand on another’s arm or back conveys control and confidence. Trump is fond of using such gestures when meeting other world leaders, and he did this with Kim repeatedly. Trump also placed his hand on Kim’s back to usher him from meeting to meeting. This could be seen as a gentle sign of reassurance and possibly a taking ownership of the space.
Once, Kim also placed his hand on Trump’s back as they walked out of a meeting. Overall, he initiated fewer touches. “Kim Jong Un did not initiate much physical contact, probably in a move to be prudent and polite to an elderly person,” said body language expert Kim Hyung-hee
Next: How North Koreans tend to view smiles
Kim didn’t smile until after a photo session and sidelines conversation with Trump. Unlike in American culture, Koreans don’t always perceive a smile as a positive thing. Rather, they may view it as a sign of guilt or foolishness. As his meeting with Trump went on, however, Kim showed several smiles and appeared more at ease in general.
Trump seemed more relaxed throughout, offering “some micro-smiling facial expressions along with his baseline squinting,” U.S. body language expert Patti Wood said.
Next: Why Kim didn’t look back at Trump
5. Eye contact
Like smiling, North Koreans handle eye contact differently than Americans. To onlookers, Trump appeared to be staring Kim down at some points of their meeting. While Americans view eye contact as a sign of honesty, Koreans feel it is impolite to look someone straight in the eye who is elder or superior. This may explain why Kim, 35, looked back and forth at Trump, 72, repeatedly.
Kim afforded the same eye contact courtesy when he met South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is 65. In that historic April 2018 meeting, Kim walked across the border into South Korea for the very first time.
Next: Trump showed his trademark hand gesture
6. Trump’s steeple hand gesture
After the two shook hands and had a brief conversation, they headed into a room to sit down and say a few words for the press. That’s when Trump took on his go-to steeple hand gesture. In it, he touches his fingertips together to form a triangle. This posture transmits “power, confidence, and precision thinking,” body language experts told CNN.
“The steeple is a classic for ‘thought leadership’ and both satisfy the need for Trump’s body to be unshielded (an action of trust) at all times,” body language and speech expert Dr. Louise Mahler said.
Next: Why both walked the way they did
7. Their walk
The two men walked with their arms moving in such a way as to take up more space. “Both politicians are trying to be dominant and get power by increasing the surface area when walking. They swing hands from left to right to increase the area,” said Dr. Leow Chee Seng of Humanology, an organization specializing in attitude and behavior.
As they were walking, Trump also guided Kim from room to room by placing his hand on Kim’s back. This showed he wished to be in control, Leow said.
Next: How Kim reacted to a peek at Trump’s custom ride
8. Kim seemed impressed with Trump’s armored limo
Kim displayed more smiles when Trump showed him his custom armored Cadillac limousine after lunch. An aide opened the door to allow the dictator to take a quick peek inside. Kim is said to have a penchant for Western luxuries.
While the two don’t speak the same language, both appeared relaxed during a brief outdoor stroll without interpreters before signing their agreement. Both pointed to some shrubbery along their path. They walked up to the press and Trump described the meeting as “really fantastic” with “a lot of progress.”
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