WASHINGTON • At the direction of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, military officers have carried out the executions of over 340 of the country's own citizens, including other military officials, using methods that are often as morbidly theatrical as they are inhumane and barbaric.
US President Donald Trump saluted one of those officers this week. His salute - captured in a lengthy documentary on the Singapore summit produced by North Korean state media - put the White House on the defensive on Thursday and drew questions about whether a high-ranking officer of a militaristic regime deserved to be on the receiving end of a gesture symbolising respect, camaraderie and reverence.
"It's a common courtesy when a military official from another government salutes that you return that," said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
In the documentary, Mr Trump was shown saluting General No Kwang Chol, the North Korean defence chief - after first trying to shake the general's hand. Mr Kim is shown standing nearby.
According to military protocol, it is customary to salute officers of friendly foreign nations, though it is unclear whether the relationship between the two countries can best be categorised as a congenial one.
The practice of modern presidents returning salutes is thought to go back only as far as the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan began exchanging salutes with troops. President Barack Obama was once criticised for holding a cup of coffee while saluting, and President Bill Clinton for limp-handed salutes. President George W. Bush once saluted while holding his dog.
A US president saluting a North Korean military officer in front of a smiling dictator is a new test case. Mr Trump's salute drew a rebuke from Major-General Paul Eaton.
"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," Maj-Gen Eaton said. "We must talk with them, for the sake of avoiding a disastrous war. But they have not earned the salute of a president."