Though only a brief interaction, it was telling that the salute was included in the documentary, according to Jean H. Lee, a North Korea scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
“This is a moment that will be used over and over in North Korea’s propaganda as 'proof' that the American president defers to the North Korean military,” Lee said. “It will be treated as a military victory by the North Koreans.”
The Korean Central Television documentary showed events largely from Kim's perspective, from his departure from Pyongyang aboard an Air China plane on Sunday to his arrival in Singapore, where he was greeted by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, and his being whisked through the city past large crowds of onlookers.
In a voice-over, North Korea's famous newsreader Ri Chun Hee said the size of the crowd was “unprecedented” for Singapore.
Kim is shown relaxing in a luxurious suite at the St. Regis Singapore, the five-star hotel where he stayed. He later goes to visit Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. Footage is also shown of an evening sightseeing trip across the city with Balakrishnan on Monday.
Trump does not appear in the documentary until almost halfway through, when he is shown entering the Capella Singapore hotel on the resort island of Sentosa for talks with Kim. Most of the footage of the summit is similar to what was captured by international news agencies.
When meeting No Kwang Chol, minister of the People's Armed Forces and a top North Korean military leader, Trump initially tried to shake his hand. No pulled his hand back and then saluted the president. Trump then responded with his own salute, before the two men shook hands as Kim smiles in the background.
Presidents aren't required to return salutes to military personnel, even U.S. soldiers — Ronald Reagan supposedly started the tradition of the president regularly returning the salute to members of the U.S. military. And it is highly out of the ordinary for a president to return the salute of a member of a foreign military.
At Thursday's afternoon media briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was "a common courtesy when a military official from another government salutes that you return that."
Michael Desch, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who has written about the civilian leadership of the U.S. military, said the salute didn't strike him as a breach of etiquette, but it did seem unusual — especially because it involved a foreign military official.
“Bottom line, the picture makes me feel basically the same way I do when I see men in suits with no ties or wearing untucked shirts with French cuffs and jeans,” Desch wrote in an email. “It just seems vaguely improper.”
The Wilson Center's Lee said that in the North Korean context, however, its symbolic value has to be considered. “It’s one more moment from a summit that essentially handed legitimacy and invaluable propaganda to Kim Jong Un and North Korea on a silver platter,” Lee said.
The rest of the documentary shows how the remainder of the meeting unfolded, before finishing with Kim flying back to Pyongyang, where he is greeted by a large, cheering crowd.
Although it is shown from the North Korean perspective, the documentary largely presents Trump in a flattering light — at one point, Ri describes the president and Kim as “two supreme leaders” of their countries. As is Korean custom with elders, Kim is shown making deferential gestures toward Trump, who is more than twice the age of the North Korean leader.
Notably, like in a recent KCTV documentary that showed Kim's visit to Dalian, China, for his second meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, North Korean state media didn't shy away from showing how much more developed foreign cities were than Pyongyang. There were multiple shots of Singapore's gleaming skyline in the documentary; Kim was shown visiting tourist wonders such as the Gardens by the Bay.
However, North Korean state media has generally taken a different stance on the outcome of the summit than the Trump administration — with newspapers portraying denuclearization as a “step-by-step” process and suggesting that Trump agreed to halt U.S.-South Korean military exercises under pressure from Kim.
With its focus on Kim, the KCTV documentary seems to show North Koreans that their leader is the star of the show.