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Trump and Kim shake hands in scene complex as their rivalry

Foster Klug, Associated Press | 6/12/2018, 6:52 a.m.
Donald Trump approached from the right, striding down the long portico at the colonial-era Singapore resort. Kim Jong Un, dressed ...
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

SINGAPORE — Donald Trump approached from the right, striding down the long portico at the colonial-era Singapore resort. Kim Jong Un, dressed in his familiar Mao suit, emerged from the left. They met in the middle, on a red carpet, dozens of cameras recording their every move as the world watched.

And counted.

Thirteen seconds. That's how long the American and North Korean leaders shook hands at the start of their summit Tuesday. The length of the contact, their facial expressions and body language, the stunning backdrop of interlocked national flags — all of it was instantly analyzed, criticized and marveled at in tweets and commentary in South Korea, the United States and beyond.

Kim may have best summed up the surreal quality of what was happening when he said that many of those watching will think it's a scene from a "science fiction movie."

South Koreans applauded in a train station as they watched; the South Korean president grinned broadly; one official compared the summit, favorably, to the birth of his daughter. On the flipside, critics said the welcome Trump was giving Kim in Singapore would legitimize one of the world's worst human rights offenders.

It was a single, quintessentially human moment — a greeting, a welcome, a start of a relationship — but the reaction to the handshake was as complicated as the standoff that the two countries these men represent have been locked in for seven decades now.

There was shock, relief, worry, sometimes simultaneously, as the world watched Trump and Kim — who were insulting each other's mental and physical prowess and threatening nuclear war just a few months ago — shaking hands and smiling.

Trump put his hand out first, followed by Kim as they strode toward each other. Trump grasped Kim's right arm as they shook, and then, later, took ahold of Kim's left arm as they turned to face the cameras and the world, both their expressions momentarily deadening before they turned to face each other again, and smiled.

The backdrop was almost as shocking as the warmth of the handshake — a row of the two nations' flags displayed side-by-side at the entrance to the Singapore resort that's hosting their summit.

Both Koreas have long demonized the other's national flag. It's illegal to show the North Korean flag in the South. North Korea's anti-U.S. propaganda dates to the war and regularly shows North Korean soldiers bayonetting the U.S. flag.

However, many South Koreans rushed to express their awe of Tuesday's events.

The liberal Hankook Ilbo newspaper marveled that the U.S. president didn't shake hands in the usual "Trump way" of domineering his counterpart. It also noted that Trump softly tapped Kim on the shoulder and seemed to engage in small talk with him.

Jung Chung-rae, a former lawmaker of the liberal Minjoo Party, tweeted that the handshake "shined with courtesy and respect" and that history will remember their "handshakes and smiles." Media photos showed South Korean President Moon Jae-in smiling broadly during a Cabinet meeting at the Blue House while watching a television screen that showed Trump and Kim shaking hands in front of American and North Korean flags. "All the attention of our people is on Singapore," Moon said. "I, too, could hardly sleep last night."