KIM JONG UN’S SUBDUED FACE WITH TRUMP: What effect did meeting Trump have on Kim Jong Un?

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Faces and body postures give information about emotions and social relationships that don’t necessarily come out in what words are spoken. Kim Jong Un looked distinctly different with his followers in North Korea than he did with Donald Trump in Singapore. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un leads all the action, down to facial expressions that everyone else imitates. In Singapore, the shoe was on the other foot. Trump set the tone and KJU imitated him, but in a more subdued manner. Trump took almost all the initiative, on the non-verbal level as well as verbally, and KJU passively followed.

When Trump returned from Singapore and declared that the US was now safe from nuclear attack, he was probably expressing his feeling that he had prevailed over Kim Jong Un personally. Was this so? Let’s look at the visual evidence.


Kim Jong Un and his terrified sycophants in North Korea

In a previous post, “Faces Around a Dictator,” I examined all available photographs of Kim Jong Un with other North Koreans.

Throughout, KJU sets the facial expression and body posture. His followers mirror him, but with a difference-- their expressions are over-the-top, trying really hard to show they agree with him. We see this in the strain lines in their faces, and their exaggerated body postures.

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Their faces are also tinged with fear. Not surprisingly, given Kim’s record of ruthlessly eliminating potential opponents and any sign of opposition.

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When KJU smiles, everyone smiles.

KJU uneasily confers with his father, Kim Jong Il. The man in the middle is KJU’s uncle.

KJU uneasily confers with his father, Kim Jong Il. The man in the middle is KJU’s uncle.

Whatever the dictator’s mood, others imitate it.

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On the left is Kim Jong Un’s uncle, once considered the power behind the throne, now (2013) on his way to prison and execution.

Kim Jong Un doesn’t so much threaten people to their face as dominate them emotionally. People around him are emotionally beaten down.

What happens to KJU’s emotional domination when he meets Trump face to face?


Kim Jong Un with Trump in Singapore

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I examined all photos available on-line and in news media that show Kim Jong Un and Trump together.


12 photos show both men facing the camera, not looking at each other:

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12 show Kim and Trump looking at each other face to face, in reciprocal face contact:

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11 are asymmetrical: 10 in which Trump is looking at Kim Jong Un’s face, while Kim looks away:

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Looked at in more detail, these photos show Trump setting the emotional mood with his face, while KJU mirrors him but less intensely. This contrasts sharply with what we see in North Korea, where KJU always takes the emotional lead. With Trump, KJU doesn’t look like one of his own sycophants, straining to out-do the leader’s expression; but he has gone from being extremely dominant emotionally, to looking at least mildly emotionally dominated.


1 photo shows Kim Jong Un looking at Trump while Trump looks away:

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This is the scene where a North Korean general saluted Trump, and Trump returned the salute. No doubt it was Trump enjoying acting military. Kim Jong Un looks surprised, taken aback, a little intimidated. His feeling is probably something like, what the hell is he going to do next? KJU is doing the looking, but in this case his looking is reactive, while Trump is active, whipping up his arm.

Summing up, in one-third of the photos Trump has the initiative and the emotional dominance; in the other two-thirds, they are symmetrical, either looking at each other reciprocally, or both facing the camera. But if we examine all the photos for their facial expressions and body action, we find the following.

In 10 photos, Trump is more active-- either showing more body movement, or more forceful body posture.

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In only 1 photo is Kim more active than Trump:

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This is the photo where KJU puts his hand on Trump’s shoulder as they are about to walk by themselves in the garden. Kim is momentarily being more active, but it is also the photo where  Kim most spontaneously expresses friendliness.

In 6 photos, Trump’s face is more expressive; there are zero photos where KJU shows the more expressive face.

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Altogether, there is a lot of ceremonial ritual in the Singapore meeting, especially where Trump and KJU greet each other on a flag-covered stage and when they perform for the camera. But even here they are largely playing Trump’s game. The asymmetrical moments and the more informal interactions show Trump’s emotional domination.

Is all this a show put on for the Singapore summit? Are they just acting out a conventional script? Some comparisons to other situations will help.


Trump in hostile confrontation-- and others

Less than a week before the Singapore meeting, Trump had a major confrontation at the G-7 meeting over threatening tariffs.  The archetypal photo shows most of the other G-7 heads of state on one side of a table, Trump on the other. Angela Merkel, the most prominent politician in Europe, takes the lead in a stare-down with Trump. At her side, French President Macron (seen only in profile) joins in the stare-down. They are all collectively trying to stare down Trump, with the exception of Japanese PM Abe, who watches Merkel with a slightly embarrassed look. (I would read this as indicating Abe is more willing to break with the European leaders and to negotiate with Trump.)

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How does Trump handle the pressure? He narrows his eyes, while continuing to meet the hostile stares.

This is a typical move in top-level international confrontations between leaders of mutually hostile states. We see it in 1959 when Fidel Castro, just having overthrown the government of Cuba, comes to the United Nations and has a handshake with Vice President Richard Nixon. Castro, the victorious revolutionary, aggressively stares, even slightly smiling, at Nixon, who responds with a grim face and narrowed eyes:

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We see this also in 1960; Nixon is the more aggressive, pointing a finger at the Soviet leader Khrushchev, who refuses to turn his face away while narrowing his eyes to a slit:

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In June 1961 in Vienna, it is Khrushchev who has the political advantage (the US-organized invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs having failed ignominiously). President Kennedy does not meet his eyes, but the two have a wary handshake, looking down at each other’s hands:

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Trump at the G-7  shows the typical international tough-guy look in a hostile confrontation. In his meeting with Kim Jong Un four days later, his demeanor is completely different. Ostensibly, the meeting could be as threatening as those between Khrushchev and American leaders at the height of the nuclear arms race. In previous months Trump and KJU had both threatened to use nuclear weapons against each other. Possibly Trump chose to show his hard face at the G-7, in order to intimidate KJU in advance, then showing up with his Mr-nice-guy effusiveness, we-can-get-along performance.


Kim Jong Un’s face in Singapore, minus Trump


Is it just that Kim Jong Un is very new to international summit meetings? But we don’t see the same asymmetry and emotional domination in photos of KJU meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in; nor in his meetings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping; nor when greeting the Singapore PM a few hours before meeting Trump.

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These photos show the usual symmetry in polite meetings at the top rank. KJU looks confident, holding his own easily.

Another clue comes from photos taken the evening after the Trump meetings, when KJU and his entourage went out to view the sights of Singapore. Here KJU is among his followers (mainly his stone-faced security guards, but also his sister and other guests, including basketball star Dennis Rodman):

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Although he is back in safe company, KJU looks passive, a bit bewildered, not in control of the situation. Perhaps this is because he is impressed--- not to say dazzled-- by the bright lights and  postmodernist architecture of Singapore’s night scene. But he looks less like he is enjoying it, perhaps because he is thinking about Trump’s blandishments, offering to jump-start the modernization of North Korea in return for a nuclear disarmament deal. 


What next can we expect?

Kim Jong Un was at least temporarily dominated by Trump during and after their meeting. How long will that last?

The Singapore meeting so far has led to little specific agreement about practical steps to nuclear disarmament. But that may not be the most important thing. Even apart from the pace of negotiations and the extent that North Korea stops making nuclear weapons and rockets and disposes of the ones it has, nuclear war is prevented as long as the North Korean dictator feels no urge to use them.  Being emotionally dominated means being less self-confident, more passive, less likely to start something. We may get passive-aggressive foot-dragging, but that is better than hard-charging belligerence.

What will happen depends above all on the personal relationships between the two men. Having more face-to-face meetings would be well worth-while, if Trump can produce the same emotional result.

Inviting KJU to the White House might be politically unpopular, but in emotional relationships, it would be another step towards averting a nuclear war. It could further build up Kim’s confidence that he and his country would do better without nuclear weapons.

Major shifts in international diplomacy have hinged on the personal chemistry-- or lack thereof-- between world leaders. The out-of-control nuclear arms race in the mid-1980s turned to detente and arms reduction when Reagan and Gorbachev personally met at Reykjavik in 1988 and liked each other. The Munich meeting in 1938 between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler opened the door to Nazi aggression because Chamberlain was emotionally dominated by Hitler.

There a track record, as we know, of North Korea offering to negotiate a halt to their nuclear program, in return for economic aid. Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, negotiated such an agreement with President Bill Clinton, resulting in only a temporary lull, and then renewed arming. Why won’t this happen again?

What this prognosis leaves out is the emotional element of social relationships. The photo below shows Kim Jong Il, with U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright on a visit to North Korea in 2000. Kim Jong Il is jovial and at ease in the meeting (hardly his normal demeanor on his home turf, where he was usually dour and threatening). Albright looks strained. Between the two of them, it is Kim Jong Il that emotionally dominates the situation. This is more like the demeanors shown at the Munich agreement, where one side is getting suckered by the other.

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This is not what the Trump/KJU summit looks like. Here, the US has the upper hand. And not just in sheer amount of nuclear destruction it can cause. Emotional relationships on the personal level is the ground zero of all international politics, the code that turns the rockets on, or off. At least for now, the emotional balance of power favors the US, and the cause of peace. Our aim should be to prolong this as much as possible.