“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,” Mr. Eaton said in a statement. “We must talk with them, for the sake of avoiding a disastrous war. But they have not earned the salute of a president.”
It is difficult to divine the motivations of a president like Mr. Trump, a mercurial personality who tends to put ideology aside in pursuit of a quick deal. But analysts say public admiration of authoritarian strongmen has been one of Mr. Trump’s few consistently held views.
Nearly 30 years ago, Mr. Trump praised the Chinese government for its massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters. Since becoming president, Mr. Trump has often expressed a desire to become closer to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, despite steps taken by his administration to expel Russian diplomats over national security concerns.
And when it comes to Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump has in recent months pivoted from disparaging the leader as “Little Rocket Man” on Twitter to using precious foreign diplomacy hours on a much-publicized summit meeting that was heavy on theater but did not go far enough to eradicating the North Korean nuclear threat.
In an interview with Bret Baier of Fox News, Mr. Trump called Mr. Kim a “tough guy,” praised his negotiation skills and avoided Mr. Baier’s questions about Mr. Kim’s dismal human rights record.
When applied with the weight of the presidency, a salute to a North Korean military official has the effect of legitimizing Mr. Kim’s government, Elizabeth N. Saunders, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and the author of “Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions,” said in an interview.
“It’s possible that it was just instinctive and he didn’t think it through,” Ms. Saunders said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not consistent with everything he’s believed the whole time.”
“Saluting a North Korean general,” she added, is in some respects “the apotheosis of that belief.”