June 12 2018 marked a historic, long-anticipated moment: the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and United States President Donald Trump, held at the Capella Resort in Singapore. The talk between the two leaders primarily focused on the control of nuclear weapons and possible nuclear disarmament. There had never been such a meeting between the two leaders in today’s age. As this meeting went on, thousands tuned in to watch live streams offered by various news outlets, pitching their opinions in online forums as news reporters scrambled to write new analyses and interpretations of their meeting.
Left: North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, Right: United States President Donald Trump at the Summit (Source: Vanity Fair)
In this analysis, I too, am going to cover the Trump x Kim Jong Un summit with a specific focus on the idea of the power behind touch, and what it means in politics.
Before I break the meeting down frame by frame, I am going to provide a brief background on the power of touch and its significance in politics and our everyday lives. There are many aspects of our body language that are seemingly insignificant but play a substantial role in how we communicate — gestures such as who reaches out to shake the others’ hand, which hand is on top of the other (through the camera’s perspective), and even which individual chooses to ‘manhandle’ for lack of a better word, the other individual to assert their power. Although not all of these may be done deliberately, most are executed intentionally to assert power, and in the political context they are often planned to signal messages. Put simply, touch has the power to decide who dominates in our everyday interactions, further determining which way the discussion may go following these touches.
The first action I am going to address is one that is more noticeable compared to the rest.
IN THE BEGINNING: Trump’s touches – Sizing His Opponent Up
Right in the beginning of the interaction, President Donald Trump is pictured to place three points of touch in the view of the cameras. Trump begins the interaction with Kim Jong Un by patting his shoulder, elbow, and then back. Some may interpret this as the President sizing up his opponent. Initiating the interaction in this manner demonstrates to the audience an important message: that he would have the ‘dominance’ and confidence to discuss what needed to be done. The denuclearization of North Korea and furthering discussions would most definitely require the President to show confidence, but also the willingness to listen.
Handshake interaction between the two leaders (Source: New York Post)
IN BETWEEN: Handshakes
All throughout the summit, frequent handshakes are exchanged between the two leaders. It is evident that in each instance, President Trump raises his hand first to exchange the handshake. Small indicators like the timing of who initiates the handshake are enough to hint who is to exert dominance in the following discussion. However, something important to note is that in respect to Korean culture, it is not often that young people initiate handshakes, and rather allow the older individual to do so. So, this small handshake initiator indicator may not be as significant as other touch signals, yet it is still something important to notice.
LEADING THE WAY
This final interaction I’ll be talking about is most definitely not as obvious and power-assertive as the other two above. As the leaders are leaving the public meeting room where reporters and officials are allowed to watch and record, both Kim Jong Un and Trump took turns lending an arm out, to guide the other to the direction of the private discussion room. As mentioned, they took turns, meaning there was not as much of a specific person leading the way all the time, but rather they switched the role back and forth as the meeting progressed. The mere action of taking turns revealed that the intention was not so much to forcefully direct the other individual around, as the other two actions above could have, but rather more of a gesture to allow the other to lead the way.
Broken down in an article by the New York Times by Jacqueline Whitmore and Chris Ulrich, both experts in body language and etiquette, are various shows of power and what they mean in politics. Showing instances of different interactions with world leaders, from supporting Russia’s Putin’s elbow, to the awkward timing of handshakes with German chancellor Angela Merkel, President Donald Trump is understood to display power and support through his gestures. The experts reaffirm the power behind these actions, revealing that these are not just for on-screen purposes, but also are indicative of the meeting between leaders, to come.
Whether you choose to see the meaning and power behind the actions I’ve discussed today, this analysis serves as a reminder to all, to pay attention to the bigger picture, and notice even nitty gritty details that may make up for a bigger part of the picture. This meeting between the two great powers will hopefully lead to much more discussion and progression to nuclear disbarment, and will surely go down in history.