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For Trump and Kim, maybe the spectacle is what truly counted

June 12, 2018
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North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands at the conclusion of their meetings. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

NEW YORK (AP) — Put aside the “deliverables” and the “outcomes” and the “takeaways.” Put aside, for argument’s sake, the question of what was actually accomplished, at least in the way that we usually use the word. Put aside your politics, even — if only for a moment.

The summit that brought Donald Trump of Washington and Kim Jong Un of Pyongyang together for gripping, grinning and talking Tuesday is being vigorously debated across the planet for what it did, what it didn’t do and who emerged on top.

Strip away the spectacle and look for the substance, the pundits insist. But what if that’s not the whole point? What if, on a sunny tropical morning in Singapore, the spectacle itself was the most substantial thing of all?

“People thought this could never take place. It is now taking place,” Trump said after the meeting. And in that he is utterly correct. A decade ago, a year ago and certainly six months ago, the notion of these two sitting down together — “Little Rocket Man” and the “deranged U.S. dotard,” as they derisively called each other — seemed unfathomable.

This is not a meditation on whether it was right for Trump to meet with Kim, or whether by doing so he legitimized a despot. That’s up to you to decide. Instead, let’s examine whether, in a modern media age when we do so many things remotely and then move on with lightning speed, an old-fashioned tete-a-tete — no matter how high-profile or tabloidy — is still important of its own accord.

First of all, the notion of personal relationships — of actually looking someone in the eye — is of great importance in East Asia. No matter how heartfelt the letter, no matter how big the envelope, correspondence can easily fall short. Face-to-face interaction is far superior to any other form of contact — a version of what George W. Bush, referring years ago to Vladimir Putin, called the ability to “get a sense of his soul.”

People who seem intransigent or even sullen in writing or on the phone can bloom with generosity if you sit down together with a cup of tea or a glass of soju, Korea’s clear and potent liquor. So what might be considered a concession by some is, in much of East Asia, simply table stakes.

But what actually HAPPENED at the summit beyond the spectacle, you ask? What is really going to come out of this other than words? Isn’t the act of meeting with Kim nothing more than a miscue that legitimizes his regime?

What happened was that they talked and shook hands and breathed the same air and walked away, by all appearances, in reasonably good moods. What happened was that 70 years of conflict were supplanted for a historical micromoment with a few hours of collegiality, at least on the surface.

What happened was that South Korean media noticed that Trump wasn’t domineering in his approach to Kim as he has been with some European leaders. What happened was that Kim appeared to hold his own in the spotlight — and that some people could thus conclude that the “hermit kingdom,” a horribly insulting moniker, might not apply quite as much anymore. That has potential implications for North Korea and for everybody else.

In the end, the very questions — What actually happened? How did it end? Who was the winner and who was the loser? — are very American things to ask.

Americans have a rich history of being an either-or nation, a country of outsized binaries that have been encouraged by the way we’ve made our films and our TV shows for so long. For Americans, ambiguity — even in entertainment — is still a relatively rare phenomenon. We’re black and white, big and small, yes and no, good guys and bad guys, and Hollywood endings to wrap it all up. Reality, however, can be messier.

Above all else, Americans are a nation of spectacle and big stories. And Pyongyang? Pyongyang has practically made a doctrine out of spectacle in everything from its carefully coordinated rallies to the over-the-top rhetoric it wields against anyone who dares to nip at its ankles.

So for two nations and two leaders so captivated by spectacle, could it be that spectacle is not just the means but also the end?

A generation or two ago, the philosopher and media scholar Marshall McLuhan offered us the notion that “the medium is the message.” His quote has been used and overused for a half-century, a tired trope that nevertheless is relevant once again.

The medium was Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, two men certain of the primacy of their nations and themselves, encountering each other face to face in a neutral and controlled location with the highest of stakes between them.

The message — whether you agree with it or not, and there’s evidence on both sides — was that beyond the lacerating volleys of words and the threatened volleys of missiles that have hung over the two nations for decades, something might be possible.

Perhaps something concrete will be constructed from this particular event. Perhaps not. But whatever happens, Tuesday’s spectacle in Singapore was, like so few other things, American and North Korean all at once. Is that in itself an outcome, a deliverable, a takeaway? In light of 70 years of unsettling and violent history, it might very well be.

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Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, was the news cooperative’s director of Asia-Pacific news from 2014 to 2018 and oversaw coverage of North Korea. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted.

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