When US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un exchange their first-ever handshake at a resort hotel in Singapore, the city-state playing host to the historic meeting will be hoping for a breakthrough. Whatever the outcome of this week’s high-stakes summit, Singapore is pulling out all the stops to ensure its success.
Casting Singapore as a prestige venue for high-security events, its top diplomat at the center of recent shuttle diplomacy suggests the city-state is also playing an important role as a neutral arbitrator. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has led delegations both to Washington and Pyongyang in recent days in preparation for the June 12 summit.
Singapore, a wealthy Asian financial center, is one of the few countries in the world to maintain business links and relatively cordial ties with both the United States and North Korea. It was chosen as the venue for the first-ever meeting between the two adversarial countries’ leaders because it could ensure their security and provide a neutral meeting ground.
Balakrishnan told local media that North Korea regards the summit as a “magnificent opportunity” to deal with an “intractable problem” and that playing host was Singapore’s “contribution to world peace.” Other top ministers in the city-state have emphasized the high degree of trust and confidence placed in Singapore by all sides.
Both US and North Korean leaders are expected to arrive in Singapore today (June 10). Neither delegation has made its travel plans public, though reports indicate that Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will meet North Korea’s leader after he arrives at Changi Airport.
The US president will also arrive in the early evening, landing at the Paya Lebar Airbase.
The two leaders are expected to stay at five-star hotels – Trump at the Shangri-La Hotel and Kim at the nearby St. Regis Hotel – each about 20 minutes away from the idyllic Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa where their summit will be held. The areas around those hotels, and all of Sentosa, have been designated as security zones.
Anyone entering the areas may be subject to body and bag searches to check for weapons, remote-control drones and other prohibited items such as protest flags or spray paint. The hotels where the leaders and their delegations are expected to stay will be subject to an even-more restrictive security zone.
People and vehicles entering the smaller restricted zones will be screened and police have been empowered to refuse entry or remove suspect individuals. As such, Singapore is unlikely to be the scene of any protests against the visiting leaders.
Public assemblies held without a police permit are a crime and authorities are determined for the event to play out without any hiccups.
“The whole security apparatus is very robust,” says Ja Ian Chong, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore. “There’s a lot of surveillance around the island, there’s significant control of dissent and control of the media here, such as that any events deemed unhappy or unhelpful can be quite tightly controlled and put down.”
Singapore is not a direct party to the negotiations to be held at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa, a tropical island linked to the mainland by a causeway known mainly as an entertainment and holiday destination for tourists and families.
The secluded colonial-style hotel, one of Singapore’s most expensive and luxurious, overlooks the Singapore Strait and includes both modern buildings and two restored bungalows built in the 1800s for British naval officers. It is owned by Singapore-based Pontiac Land Group, a luxury developer held by the billionaire Kwee family.
Local figures in the hospitality industry regard the Trump-Kim summit as a “priceless branding opportunity” and a chance for Singapore to showcase itself to the world. The meeting will benefit Sentosa in particular, giving new burnish to its image which it may use to position itself as an ideal place to hold other high-security meetings and events.
The city-state already has plenty of experience playing host to top-level meeting and events. Singapore hosts the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, attended by leaders and defense ministers from across the world, as well meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) groupings.
Though Singapore has close military links with the United States, it is a not a US treaty ally and is known for its deft diplomatic maneuvers in striking a balance between major powers such as the US and China. Its relative political neutrality has seen the island increasingly likened to Switzerland following other high-profile diplomatic talks.
Singapore hosted a landmark summit between China’s President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s then-President Ma Ying-jeou in 2015, which was the first meeting between the top leaders of the two sides for over six decades. This week’s summit in Singapore will be the farthest overseas trip taken by the North Korean leader since succeeding his father in 2011.
Kim’s high-profile visit to the Southeast Asian city-state has also renewed interest in Singapore’s economic and diplomatic ties with North Korea. Pyongyang recognized Singapore as an independent country in 1967, two years after it was expelled from a short-lived political union with neighboring Malaysia.
The two countries formalized their diplomatic relations in 1975, which saw North Korea establish an embassy in Singapore which still remains open. The city-state accredits a non-resident ambassador to Pyongyang who operates from Beijing. Singapore suspended trade with Pyongyang under toughened United Nations sanctions last November.
Prior to the suspension, Singapore was among North Korea’s top trading partners, though in real terms the amount of business was minuscule. Balakrishnan, who gave a glowing account of Pyongyang as a “clean, green, modern, beautiful city” to local media, reportedly said that “clear opportunities will arise” if UN sanctions on the country are lifted.
Should the summit lead to a thaw in US-North Korea ties and a normalization of political and economic relations with Pyongyang, Singapore would be favorably positioned and could very conceivably become a major investor in the country. Pyongyang may also regard Singapore’s development model as a useful case study for economic modernization.
Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based nongovernmental organization, already organizes economic policy training workshops in North Korea. Asia Time recently spoke to Ian Bennett, an associate program manager at the organization, who said Singapore’s economic development and political stability was “something the North Koreans can see as a future trajectory for themselves.”
Ahead of the summit, entrepreneurial Singaporeans have tapped into the buzz to market products inspired by the two instantly recognizable, if not widely disliked, world leaders convening in their country. Specialty cocktails, burgers and tacos with American cheddar cheese or Korean bulgogi grilled beef are all the rage on social media postings.
There are even piñatas depicting Trump and Kim at bars and restaurants throughout the city-state. Trump and Kim impersonators have also been spotted around town posing for photographs with tourists. While some are bitter about the characters involved, an incident-free and conducive summit will be an undeniable boon for the already rich city-state.