Memo to Donald Trump: It’s All About ‘Face’ – John Cookson

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(Last Updated On: June 11, 2018)

The clock ticks with only hours before an historic handshake here in Singapore between the leader of the free world and his co-summiteer, the man one US senator dubbed: “the crazy fat kid.”

Since Kim and Trump landed yesterday in this locked-down island state they’ve spent time in closed door sessions with advisers, cramming like college students before exam finals – worth noting: one of them 72-years-old this week, the other around half his age.

But let’s be frank. Both leaders firmly understand Tuesday is really all about the optics, or style over substance – perfect for shallow, super-fast social media so loved by millenials.

Rewind to the 1980s and the late US President Ronald Reagan understood all about optics.

His carefully managed crafted-for-tv meetings with Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev always portrayed Reagan, the former B-movie actor, as the more youthful of the two. Ronnie was always shown smiling and vibrant.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we know Donald Trump is a showman at heart: he spent 14 seasons as the star of “The Apprentice” reality TV show before he ran for president.

Kim also knows a thing or two about the dark arts of televisual manipulation, having kept an iron grip on reliable North Korean TV to maintain his god-like image for his impoverished subjects.

So with optics paramount when Trump and Kim meet tomorrow on Sentosa Island, I expect the global audience will see them magically appear in the meeting hall at the same time through separate doors – neither of them upstaging the other.  It’s all about eye contact folks – the body language will tell us all we need to know.

Apart from the American ring-master himself, Team Trump includes a key architect of these historic talks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Also tagging along White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Adviser John Bolton, tentatively the CIA’s Korea expert Andrew Kim, the US National Security Council’s go-to person on Korea Allison Hooker, plus White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin.

Notable American absentees include Defence Secretary General James Mattis and US Vice-President Mike Pence.

And First Lady Melania Trump has not been able to fit Singapore into her frantic diary.

Kim’s entourage is harder to predict – he sometimes travels light – apart from a translator we know Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho is in town and we  can be reasonably sure Kim Yong-chol his former secret service chief and vice chairman of the North Korean Worker’s Party caught the plane here.

If Chol’s name sounds familiar Kim dispatched him to Washington earlier this month to deliver a large envelope to Trump at the White House confirming the talks were back on.

Once Trump and Kim actually get down to parlaying we know the Americans plan to lob a tough call at Kim: give up your nukes.

So how best to pitch it?

Having lived and worked in the Far East I have some advice for shoot-from-the-hip Trump.

No deal was ever finalized in this part of the world without understanding the concept of “face.”

There is no real definition of “face” other than demonstrating to the man or woman across the table that you regard him or her your equal, or better still your superior.

The US President might like to note the following are some face-losing situations to be avoided: revealing someone’s lack of knowledge or ability, accusing someone of lying or refusing an invitation outright instead of suggesting “maybe” or “let’s talk about it later.”

So how can Trump, who is good at schmoozing, give Kim good “face?”

Well over-the-top compliments would help an expensive gift, or perhaps an invitation to Mar-a-Lago?

I think Trump probably understands the basics of “face.” He routinely emphasizes his friendship with the Chinese leader President Xi, while talking tough on the trade imbalance between America and China.

And he’s already hinted a trip to the White House might be on the cards for Kim if the North Korean leader decides to play ball.

The Capella Hotel, has a number of semi-outdoor spaces for Trump and Kim to have a quiet stroll and chat in comfort and in private. It’s during those moments any deal on Kim giving up his nukes will likely be sealed.

So Donald, tread carefully with young Kim, remember: it’s all about face.

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