Italian political analyst Domenico Bartoli once noted that a summit between two leaders who are meeting for the first time combines the risk of misunderstandings with the most sensational publicity.
Supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Jong-un and United States President Donald Trump are due to meet 12 June in Singapore for the first ever tête-à-tête between a North Korean leader and sitting American president.
Trump has repeatedly hinted that he may walk away from the summit. Not one to be outdone, Kim issued a similar threat 16 May.
Their huffs have been written off as attempts to assess each other’s keenness while gaining leverage and pre-emptively saving face just in case their counterpart does pull out. At the time of writing, plans are still in full swing.
Recent weeks saw the question switch from whether the summit could occur to where it would take place.
The location of this historic one-day summit has been the subject of intense speculation and pre-summit haggling, with numerous countries vying to play host. Serving as a taster for the degree of compromise to come, the venue became a matter of global interest.
The agreed site would have to be logistically convenient, symbolically significant and diplomatically appealing to both sides while meeting the highest security standards.
Before exploring how the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore satisfies these exacting specifications, it is worth considering why other places did not make the cut.
Hosting the meeting in the US or DPRK would have implied a power imbalance straight out the gate.
Trump would claim a summit in Washington DC, as a crowning achievement while holding the summit in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, would paint Kim as the more powerful of the two leaders.
Showing deference to Kim does not sit well with Trump, who prides himself on his deal-making skills and does not want to yield too much before negotiations even begin.
As South Korean scholar Cha Du-hyeogn explains, “Trump was never going to Pyongyang unless he was sure he will return with a deal big enough to silence his critics at home, such as a firm agreement from North Korea for a quick and complete nuclear disarmament.
Kim was never going to Washington unless the United States promises to lift sanctions against the North upfront.”
The media blitz surrounding Kim’s 27 April meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in enticed Trump to suggest Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea as a venue, but another summit in the truce village a mere one-and-a-half-months later risked coming across as an underwhelming second act.
The optics would lose much of their punch because the pageantry of the inter-Korean talks is still fresh in our minds.
Several European cities were floated as potential venues, including Russia’s Vladivostok, but it is in neither leader’s interest to gift-wrap the Kremlin a diplomatic victory at this point.
Sweden and Switzerland signalled a willingness to facilitate the meeting as both maintain diplomatic relations with the US and North Korea, and Geneva in particular was put forward as a favourite.
Kim is comfortable in Switzerland, having attended school in Berne, but it is a Western country and a long way from Pyongyang.
Kim is eager to show the world that unlike his aviophobic father, he is capable of reaching places beyond the tracks of his bulletproof train but he is held back by the outdated Soviet-era aeroplanes at his disposal.
His personal Ilyushin-62M (IL-62M) jet is accompanied by a Ilyushin-76 (IL-76) cargo plane that carries his limousine and requires refuelling every 3,000 kilometres.
Flying to a European destination would thus entail an undignified stopover or two, increasing the risk of danger.
This limitation whittled the list down to Asia. Mongolia, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia were among the countries that offered to host the summit.
As the scene of Kim’s half-brother’s assassination (on Kim’s orders, by all accounts), Malaysia was an obvious no-go and the others were said to lack the necessary infrastructure.
Safe, neutral and not too far-off, Singapore emerged as the leading candidate. At 4,700 kilometres from Pyongyang, the island nation is comfortably within range of Kim’s IL-62M aircraft (the IL-76 will either refuel in a friendly location or carry a reduced load).
“From a North Korean perspective, the risks you take in leaving the country and the risks you take in dealing with the international community are somewhat mitigated in Singapore,” remarked Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Singapore is one of 42 non-party, non-signatory states to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, eliminating the possibility of Kim facing human rights charges upon his arrival.
For two particularly paranoid leaders, security is a crucial selling point. Singapore is renowned for its high degree of public order, hypermodern surveillance and robust security infrastructure.
Singapore is an urban centre where East meets West, socialism meets capitalism and good relations are adroitly maintained with both the US and DPRK.
It is home to one of the 47 North Korean embassies worldwide. The two nations established diplomatic relations in 1975 (the same year as Singapore with South Korea) and up until 2016, North Koreans could travel to Singapore visa-free.
The US opened its consulate in Singapore in 1836 (when the island was still a part of the British Straits Settlements) and its embassy was set up in 1966.
Dubbed “Asia’s Switzerland”, Singapore enjoys close friendships with many countries around the world and successfully strives to be a neutral actor in global affairs.
Lacking the desire to harm the interests of other states and the historical and political baggage of the other suggested spots, Singapore’s impartiality valuably lends the Trump-Kim talks a neutralising setting.
While the precise venue of the summit is yet to be confirmed, nearly all of the major hotels in Singapore are booked solid for the days surrounding the summit due to a flood of reservations and hotel-imposed “blocks” which give official entourages priority.
Singapore is the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and since 2002 annual host of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the region’s most important security forum which sees defence ministers and military officials come together at its namesake hotel.
Coincidentally falling a week after this year’s forum and conveniently while the hotel is still on high-alert, the US-North Korea meeting can realistically be expected to take place at the Shangri-La.
The same hotel famously hosted the historic 2015 summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, with preparations carried out in a shroud of secrecy and the meeting going off without a hitch.
As the financial centre of Southeast Asia, Singapore is one of the world’s wealthiest nations per-capita.
The island state of 5.6 million people experienced dramatic progress under the strict leadership of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Becoming a “more economically developed country” in one generation, Singapore’s experience may serve as inspiration for Kim as he pushes for economic reforms back home.
In 2017, Singapore succumbed to international pressure and enforced United Nations sanctions on North Korea, but cargo ships from Singapore to Pyongyang are often allowed to slip by unchecked and last March it emerged that two Singaporean firms had continued to sell North Korea luxury goods.
Before the sanctions, the city-state was one of the DPRK’s largest trading partners. Pyongyang’s first law firm and fast-food restaurant were set up by Singaporeans and North Korea’s state companies have, both legally and illegally, conducted many a transaction with Singapore-based businesses.
More than 4,200 American businesses operate in Singapore and the regional headquarters of big US corporations (including Chevron, Airbnb, Procter & Gamble and the Walt Disney Company) are based on the island.
Of the total $228 billion invested in Singapore in 2016, American companies brought in $180 billion.
Trade increased by 60 per cent after the two countries signed a bilateral free trade agreement in 2004, but the US retains a $20 billion trade surplus.
Singapore is not only one of Washington’s closest trading partners in Asia: it is also one of the US military’s most useful, long-standing and committed supporters in the Pacific region.
Located between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean and serving as a gateway to the Far East, Singapore falls at a strategic point.
While the port city does not host any US military bases, the US Air Force and Navy have had a presence there since 1968, and in 1990 they were granted use of some of Singapore’s military facilities.
Singapore is an acceptable location to Beijing, North Korea’s main ally and a strong influence over Pyongyang, but China is becoming wary of the US leading the effort to denuclearise North Korea.
In his efforts to re-insert China into the conversation and remind everyone that it is the most powerful player in the region, President Xi imperiously summoned Kim twice recently (to Beijing in late March and to Dalian on 8 May) and speculations abound that he intends to drop in on Kim’s talks with Trump in Singapore next month.
The “ripeness theory” is an approach to the study and practice of negotiations and mediations that postulates that the key to successful conflict resolution is timing.
Disputants only truly reconcile when they feel the time is ripe to put the disagreement behind them.
Arriving at this point when alternative means of moving forward become unpalatable and they find themselves stuck in an unproductive and costly stalemate, the parties become more open to finding a solution that will finally settle the dispute.
We do not yet know what will be said at the Trump-Kim summit and whether they will agree on a plan of action but the mere fact that this meeting is happening is cause for cautious optimism as it suggests both leaders deem the time ripe to finally engage in a mature, meaningful conversation.
The meeting will be a massive propaganda win for North Korea regardless of the outcome. Simply by accepting his invitation, Trump has given Kim the respect and legitimacy he has long-craved.
For Kim, a big part of this summit is getting to the photo opportunity and showing his people that he can not only muster the attention of the leader of a superpower but meet him as an equal on the world stage.
Summits are notoriously high on style and stagecraft and short on substance and statecraft. It is the theatrical dimension and body language rather than the exchange of views which make the meeting “real” to most people.
Trump relishes made-for-TV political moments. Drawn to high-risk, high-reward scenarios, he sees the forthcoming summit as the perfect opportunity to cast himself as a serious, historic figure.
He believes a deal with North Korea could be his legacy-maker. In the short-term, it would be help divert attention away from domestic scandals and the investigations swirling around him while bolstering his approval rating.
British professor David Dunn advises politicians and the media to refrain from point-scoring after a summit, explaining that “for a compromise position to be the basis of further harmonious interaction it is imperative that the conclusion not be hailed as a negotiating victory for either side, and instead that it be presented as the common ground of good sense.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Summitry in Singapore