The White House said Thursday that President Donald Trump returned the salute of a North Korean general as a "common courtesy" to an officer of a foreign military, although it was an enemy foreign military.
At the press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump was just being polite while going down a receiving line of North Korean officials at the Singapore summit on Tuesday, with a smiling Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, trailing behind.
The North Korean general, No Kwang Chol, minister of the People's Armed Forces, started to shake hands and then gave a salute.
Trump returned the salute and also shook hands. Sanders said it was a gesture of "common courtesy" on the president's part. "When a military official salutes, you return that," she said.
Former Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona told CNN that it was probably a "little awkward" for Trump in that the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, leaving the U.S. and South Korea still technically at war with North Korea.
However, "not to return a salute would be insulting," Francona said. "I think the president was erring on the side of not causing a cultural incident."
Several Democrats were not so forgiving.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, said he found Trump's salute "nauseating."
In a tweet, Van Hollen said, "To no one's surprise, North Korea used our president for their propaganda campaign."
The salute was part of a 42-minute documentary on the Singapore summit aired by North Korea's state television channel, in which Kim Jong Un's role was hailed as a triumph.
Salutes by presidents were never a protocol issue until President Ronald Reagan took office. Presidential historians believe it was Reagan who first made it a practice to exchange salutes with Marine guards and other members of the military.
Succeeding presidents have followed suit to avoid being tagged as disrespectful to the military, but the salutes can lead to awkward moments. President Barack Obama once returned a salute while holding a takeout cup of coffee.
Trump has not been shy about criticizing others for showing deference to foreign dignitaries. In 2009, he joined others in criticizing Obama for seeming to bow to Saudi royalty. As president on a trip to Saudi Arabia in 2017, Trump bowed to King Salman.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.