HANOI — I’m not sure what prompted Kim Jong Un to answer my question. Maybe North Korea’s once-reclusive leader was ready to take another tentative step forward on the world stage. Perhaps he was trying to demonstrate to President Trump that he was not afraid. Or it could have been the thumbs-up sign I flashed him.
The gesture was not planned in advance. Nor was it an attempt to demonstrate subservience to the dictator of one of the world’s most brutal regimes. Rather, I found myself instinctively trying to bridge a language gap by sending a universal signal — and, perhaps, appear unthreatening to the young leader in his mid-30s who, according to longtime North Korea watchers, had never answered a question from a reporter outside his tightly controlled state media.
“Chairman Kim, are you confident?” I asked. He looked at me. Trump, seated across a small, round table from Kim, had stopped talking. I was standing with a small group of American and North Korean reporters behind a rope, observing a brief photo op at the start of their nuclear summit Thursday.
We locked eyes. I raised my thumb. “Feeling good about a deal?” I said.
Kim turned his head toward an interpreter seated behind him. She translated my question, and he began speaking in Korean.
“Well, it’s too early to tell, but I wouldn’t say that I’m pessimistic,” the interpreter said, channeling Kim. “From what I feel right now, I do have a feeling that good results will come out.”
For a journalist, the success of a well-framed question is typically defined by how revelatory the answer. But what about when the very act of answering is what matters most? That was the question my colleagues and I asked ourselves as we arrived at the Metropole ahead of the summit. As the White House traveling press pool for the day, our 13-member group was responsible for chronicling the meetings between Trump and Kim for the hundreds of correspondents in Hanoi and the thousands more in Washington and around the world.
It is an awesome responsibility, and one that comes with a unique set of challenges. Reporting in the White House “bubble” can be frustrating; presidential aides maintain strict controls, with carefully scripted photo ops and limited access to the boss. We travel around the globe to glitzy foreign capitals and remote outposts, and yet we do so surrounded by the same cast of characters — famous television correspondents, high-ranking government officials, and the president of the United States. It’s a traveling road show that can feel sanitized and so surreal as to be almost Disney-like. Piercing the bubble and tapping authentic emotion, and some honest answers, is the goal.
Although Trump, comfortable with smashing protocols, has upended some of those conventions, his bluster, obfuscation and showmanship present their own challenges. He turns nearly every media opportunity, no matter how mundane, into a dramatic and unpredictable set piece in his reality show presidency. People who interact with him, from foreign leaders to members of Congress to ordinary citizens, often become bit players in the show — even a young tyrant determined to present himself as a rational global statesman and establish himself as an equal to the man in the most powerful office in the world.
In their first meeting in Singapore last June, and at an opening dinner Wednesday in Hanoi, Kim played a mostly silent role, his mere presence outside North Korea’s borders a cause for headlines. Though he made brief remarks during a photo op at the Metropole on Wednesday, Kim did not field questions.
White House aides had sought to ban the U.S. pool reporters from a second photo op Wednesday — allowing in only television cameras and news photographers at the start of the dinner — after two wire service correspondents had shouted out questions to Trump. The White House relented slightly after the journalists protested, allowing in one reporter, but the retaliation was reported in the media as an assault on the free press by a president who has denounced mainstream news outlets as “fake news” and sought to discredit critical reporting.
There was speculation over whether Kim, who had kicked out American reporters from his hotel in Hanoi, had felt uncomfortable by the display of shouted questions — unthinkable back in Pyongyang — and asked Trump to keep us out. As reporters waited for Secret Service agents to conduct a security sweep ahead of the leaders’ arrival at the Metropole on Thursday, we discussed a strategy for how to engage Trump — and Kim — in a way that would prompt answers.
It’s not that we feared offending them; rather, we wanted to break some news instead of being kept in the dark. The White House had scheduled a presidential news conference for the afternoon, so there was general agreement that it was not necessary to ask Trump off-topic questions that could be posed later in a setting where he would be more likely to answer. The better bet was to ask where nuclear negotiations stood and whether progress had been made.
But no one knew what Kim would say — or whether he would talk at all.
I drew hope from the eight North Korean “reporters” in black suits who were with us. Kim’s own traveling press pool wore red lapel pins featuring images of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il — the current leader’s grandfather and father, a sign they were not objective journalists.
I had been warned by American reporters that the North Korean contingent was sharp-elbowed. In fact, as we went through a security sweep — being “wanded” with handheld magnetometers from both Secret Service agents and North Korean security guards — they were not so fearsome. One, toting a Canon camera, chatted amiably with a New York Times photographer, laughing together over Trump having praised the American newsman the day before. Another allowed me to take a photograph of his lapel pin — which I posted on social media.
Perhaps this was a good sign.
After the Secret Service finished the security sweep, we were led around the corner to a restaurant to wait. Then, showtime: We were marched into a conference room where the two leaders were seated.
I was standing on Kim’s side of the room. I crowded toward the rope to get as close as possible, but a North Korean videographer motioned for me to be careful not to upset his camera, mounted on a tripod. I moved a few steps to my right, now behind a few others. I locked my eyes on Kim and, when Trump stopped answering a question from another reporter, I sensed my opportunity.
The moment Kim began to turn toward his interpreter was the moment I felt a sense of possibility. And once he began to speak, in his surprisingly deep voice, the Disney-like veneer faded.
The bubble had been pierced, a reclusive control freak had revealed something, however small — the fundamental currency between a reporter and his subject had been exchanged. Later in the day, Kim would be asked more pointed questions and provide some answers. And he would not get a nuclear deal with Trump, as the talks collapsed.
But now, as reporters were ushered out of the room, it was time to report the historic news.