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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
When the White House began streaming a slightly off-centered shot of a video screen at President Trump’s first post-summit press conference in Singapore Tuesday, audiences around the world may have been confused at first by what they saw.
The video was of an apparent movie trailer, narrated in Korean, featuring images of President Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, North Korean propaganda clips, and various stock footage time-lapses of clouds, the earth, futuristic VR technology, and Machu Picchu, among other world landmarks.
Played first in Korean and then in English, the four-minute trailer for a fictional film titled “A Story of Opportunity for North Korea” was not meant for foreign audiences but was – Trump revealed – a pitch shown to Kim Jong Un and his entourage offering an “alternative” and prosperous future for the DPRK.
While “A Story of Opportunity” focused mostly on the positive outcomes of Kim’s hypothetical choice to “be part of a new world,” as the narrator calls it, the video also includes implicit, visual threats of the consequences of failing to make the “right” choice.
The narration refrains from issuing explicit threats, but clearly frames the offer as a choice between two outcomes, asking if Kim will “show vision and leadership… Or not?”
The dichotomy echoed previous comments by Trump alluding to the outcomes for North Korea should a deal be struck (wealth) and should it not (“decimation”).
THE ECONOMIC CARROT
A key strategy employed by Trump in the lead up to the summit with Kim was to offer the DPRK a potential path towards economic prosperity.
He repeatedly said that North Korea had the potential to be incredibly wealthy, praised its workforce and had officials proposing that U.S. private investment could become a reality in the near future.
Much of the video pitch focused on this very theme.
“Will this leader choose to advance his country…? Be the hero of his people? Will he shake the hand of peace and enjoy prosperity like he has never seen? A great life or more isolation? Which path will be chosen?” the narrator asks.
With primarily stock footage to complement the narration using mostly overt symbolism, the video employs both hopeful, positive images and dark, negative scenarios – often in black and white resembling the ‘before’ shots in late-night infomercials.
When the narrator says that this moment in time represents “one chance which may never be repeated” for Kim to make the ‘right choice,’ a basketball star appears slam dunking in slow motion – perhaps also meant to appeal to the North Korean leader’s love of the sport.
The word “prosperity” spoken by the narrator is framed by an image of Korean “banchan” or side dishes at a local market. “Innovation” is an image of a man wearing a VR headset in a lab and a computer-generated image of a speeding futuristic monorail train. “Prosperity” is speedboats and building construction, but also newborn babies. “Investment from around the world” is a beach resort, a stock ticker, and a drone package delivery service.
Trump implies through the images that North Korea will no longer have electricity shortages, that their rail network will be modernized, and that construction in Pyongyang will be expanded if they choose the option of “moving forward.”
Some of these appear to be personal assurances to Kim Jong Un that he could maintain his wealth and lifestyle – and even become richer. Trump has, after all, previously appealed in a similar manner by saying that Kim “would be there, he would be in his country, he would be running his country. His country would be very rich.”
Trump later appeared to reference the image of a Miami beach resort used in the video. “As an example, they have great beaches,” the President offered. “Boy, look at the view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo?”
Perhaps alluding to the North’s recent Wonsan-Kalma beach resort construction project, he said, “You could have the best hotels in the world right there. Think of it from a real estate perspective.” Trump may have been hoping to entice Kim with the economic carrot and hoping to draw connections between Kim’s current projects and the President’s offer of support.
However, consistent with Trump’s rhetorical style, he also presents an alternative on the opposite end of the spectrum, which in this case means – as with previous comments on North Korea – military options.
As with his comments on Libya, Trump has previously said North Korea could make a deal and strike rich or decline and face complete “decimation.” While he refused to comment on potential military alternatives during his post-summit press conference, the video had already done just that.
At a time when Trump professes he is reluctant to speak negatively of the North and calls his country’s joint military drills with South Korea “provocative” right after reportedly showing Kim the pitch, the implicit threat in the video of military action against North Korea if Kim makes the “wrong choice” was significant.
When the narrator asks if Kim will “show vision and leadership… Or not,” a film strip showing the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore suddenly burns, and the tone shifts.
Here, the only explicit mention of any negative consequences – the outcome of “moving back” – is accompanied by more implicit, yet still obvious, threatening images. Making the wrong choice for Kim could mean ghost towns, empty store shelves, and more notably, missile attacks and incoming military jet fighters and aircraft carriers.
Trump also reminds Kim and the others of their country’s underdevelopment by showing them the iconic satellite image of a lit-up South Korea and mostly-dark North Korea at night – though a dazzling animation of the country suddenly lighting up shown moments later again showcased his zero-sum approach.
Trump’s carrot-and-stick approach and simultaneously overproduced and amateur presentation style were outwardly employed to appeal to Kim’s humanity and potential as a reforming leader, but apparent appeals to Kim’s ego in the video are a likely result of Trump’s involvement in its making.
INFORMED BY EGO
The primary theme of the pitch revolves around becoming a figure that goes down in history as a world-changing leader, opening with an appeal to Kim to be one of “only the very few” people on earth to “make decisions or take actions that renew their homeland and change the course of history.” The closing line of the video also called the just-finished summit a “meeting to remake history.”
Trump expressed his own hopes for being included as one of those people while speaking to the press after the summit. When asked about the video by a reporter from Time, Trump said if he “can save millions of lives by coming here, sitting down, and establishing a relationship with someone who’s a very powerful man,” it would be his “honor to do it.” He ended the conference by saying that the summit was “a very important event in world history.”
In his eyes, meeting with Kim Jong Un was not only a momentous success – despite worries it may not have been as successful as he claims – but also an event which would solidify his place in the history books as strong and effective leader.
He is well-known for his personal obsession with recognition and receiving credit for his perceived achievements. He even began his interaction with the Time reporter by asking him if he would be on the cover of the magazine this week, adding, “Boy, have I — so many covers.”
Seemingly a reflection of what Trump would himself consider a convincing and persuasive video, many quickly began to question the origins of its production.
When asked during the press conference about the video, Trump nearly volunteered the answer to who made it before correcting course, saying, “Yeah, we had it made up by some — I hope you liked it.”
Some outlets originally reported that the film, which carries a title screen saying it is “A Destiny Pictures Production,” may have been made by an actual U.S.-based company by the same name. A company spokesperson, however, denied any involvement late Tuesday when asked by NK News.
Bloomberg then revealed that a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) said it had been produced by them, “to help the President demonstrate the benefits of complete denuclearization, and a vision of a peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula.”
In creating the video for Kim and proudly presenting it to the press and the world following the summit, Trump clearly believed he and his NSC had made something worthy of inspiring North Korea to change their ways.
But while Trump said he believed the North Koreans in the room “were fascinated” by it and that Kim “loved it,” no statements have been released by North Korea regarding the video, and Kim did not mention it during his brief words following the day’s meetings.
One thing that may not have impressed the North Koreans was the video’s references to South Korea.
Kim and the others were likely not surprised or offended by the fact that version they saw was narrated in a South Korean dialect, but they may have been equally as bewildered as many in the media were.
Spoken in the style of a history documentary with rapid-fire images of a fictional future of their country, and “featuring President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un” as the main characters of the “movie,” their attention was likely focused on other details.
One small faux pas was committed in the English version when Kim Jong Un’s name was shown on screen as “Kim Jong-un” in typical South Korean romanization, but only some officials Trump claimed were in the press briefing room would have seen it, and there is not much recent precedent for anger from the North over these sorts of mistakes.
Trump and other U.S. officials have misspelled Kim’s name multiple times, perhaps most famously in the tweet announcing Trump’s May 24 cancellation of the summit with “Kim Jung Un,” and this did not appear to deter the North from their warmer-than-expected response the next day.
But Trump may not have been as concerned with the reaction of his North Korean counterparts as would be customary in such high-level diplomatic dealings, instead allowing his personal brand of dealmaking to inform his expectation that Kim would “love” his pitch.
He clarified to the press that Kim “may not want” the types of economic projects Trump was pitching, but he quickly turned back to his idea that it was well-suited to Kim’s taste, saying “I’m telling you they really enjoyed it, I believe.”
Above all, the video reflects Trump’s own ideas of what he wants to be done in the DPRK and how he thinks he and Kim can be viewed by the world for their efforts, rather than taking into account the North Korean perspective shaped by a very real cultural and historical context.
While it is impossible to know at this point whether Kim was inspired by the video to drastically change North Korea or if he found it bizarre, condescending, or just lacking diplomatic etiquette, he has chosen for now to take advantage of Trump’s eagerness and move forward with improving U.S.-DPRK ties.
Hamish Macdonald contributed reporting
Featured image: White House video