World News

Trump Saluted a North Korean General, Setting Off a Debate

Posted June 14, 2018 5:27 p.m. EDT
Updated June 14, 2018 5:33 p.m. EDT

Footage of President Donald Trump saluting a top North Korean general during this week’s summit meeting with the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, set off debate Thursday over military and diplomatic protocol.

The scene was part of a 42-minute documentary that aired on state television two days after the two leaders met in Singapore, offering another window into the historic encounter.

While greeting North Korean dignitaries after his initial handshake with Kim, Trump proceeded down the line shaking hands, the video shows. When Trump offered his hand to Gen. No Kwang Chol, who was recently promoted to defense chief, the general saluted instead.

Trump quickly raised his own hand and saluted back.

Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a retired U.S. Army general, criticized the gesture in a statement.

“It is wholly inappropriate for the commander-in-chief of our armed forces to salute the military of our adversary, especially one which is responsible for a regime of terror, murder and unspeakable horror against its own people,” Eaton said.

Others pointed out that with North and South Korea still technically at war (a formal peace treaty was never signed), it was inappropriate for Trump to salute the general of an adversary.

But some defended the salute, pointing out that No had initiated it and saying that Trump was being polite in return.

The documentary, which included scenes not previously broadcast, appeared on the state-run KCTV and was enthusiastically presented by North Korean television mainstay Ri Chun-hee. Much of the program, which followed Kim throughout his trip, was overlaid with soaring patriotic music and breathless narration.

The video was bookended by two scenes from Pyongyang: Kim’s departure on an Air China flight amid enthusiastic waves from military officers; and his return home to another waving crowd of officers.

The footage also showed a smiling Kim strolling through the streets of Singapore with Vivian Balakrishnan, the country’s minister for foreign affairs, as cameras flashed and dozens of people raised their smartphones to take photos.

In the United States, the handshake caused some Americans to examine history and search for precedents.

As commander-in-chief, presidents have long been saluted by members of the U.S. military, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that President Ronald Reagan began returning the gesture. Since then, presidents often salute members of the American military.

But the protocol for when it is appropriate for a president to salute those outside the American military has remained murky, and former presidents have drawn criticism for their saluting etiquette.

President Barack Obama was criticized in 2014 for saluting a military officer while holding a cup of coffee.