After weeks of speculation as to where United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un might meet, Trump put all rumors to rest and tweeted about his plan to meet the North Korean leader in Singapore on June 12.
Though Singapore had been in the running to host this momentous meeting should it push through, there were other candidates, including the border village Panmunjom, Mongolia, and a few others. Panmunjom may have lost out as it had already hosted the inter-Korean Summit on the southern side of the Joint Security Area last April 27. If Panmunjom had hosted another summit, it may not have grabbed enough attention and the North Koreans may have played up the meeting as an American president reaching out to them.
As of this posting, however, North Korea threatened to cancel the summit in response to Washington’s demands that the country relinquish its nuclear arsenal. High-level talks with Seoul were also canceled on Wednesday, May 16, following South Korea’s joint military exercises with the United States. Despite such threats, things do seem to be progressing toward an eventual meeting between the countries’ leadership, if ever more tenuously.
For now, what begs the question now is, why was Singapore selected?
First, Singapore maintains good relations with both the U.S. and North Korea, and has always been considered an honest observer. As such, the location should give ample space to both the U.S. and North Korea to work out their strategies. Singapore also has diplomatic relations with both the U.S. and North Korea. However, the U.S. presence in Singapore dwarfs that of North Korea.
When the White House’s principal deputy press secretary, Raj Shah, was quizzed on why Singapore was chosen as the venue, he remarked that it was “ to ensure both the President’s security and Kim Jong-un’s security, as well as provide neutrality.”
Singapore also boasts the experience of successfully hosting similar high-profile summits in the past. In 2015, it hosted a summit between the Chinese President Xi Jinping and the then-Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.
Second, the two sides may have decided to choose Singapore to take the wind out of Beijing’s sails on this issue. China is the biggest trading partner of the recalcitrant North. However, under U.S. and international pressure, Beijing has tightened the screws on Pyongyang recently, something which must have upset North Korea no end. Kim has made two quick visits to China, one by train to Beijing and the other to Dalian by air. These unusual visits could mean that Beijing is miffed that the DPRK is not giving enough importance to China and hence Kim Jong-un might have tried to allay Chinese concerns with back-to-back visits.
Third, the choice of Singapore as a venue could have been influenced by the fact that the flying distance to Singapore is well within the range of the personal aircraft used by the North Korean strongman—a Russian-built Ilyushin-62M jet. Kim’s recent trip to Dalian to meet President Xi Jinping may well have been a dry run for the Singapore summit.
Fourth, as BBC reported, Ankit Panda of The Diplomat said, “One reason why Singapore would be acceptable to Kim Jong-un is because it is a non-party, non-signatory state to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.” Hence, the North Korean strongman is also pre-empting any human rights abuse cases during his trip to Singapore for the summit.
Fifth, security is a key issue for such summits and Singapore is adequately prepared for these events. It hosts the annual Shangri-La dialogue, and this year will be no different.
Singapore also possesses the required infrastructure and facilities to host high-profile events. Hosting an event of this nature can be a logistical nightmare for the various parties involved, and Singapore has shown many times in the past that it is perfectly capable of managing the details.
Singapore is also the ASEAN chair for 2018. The Trump administration has stressed the centrality of the “Indo-Pacific” in its scheme of things, and the importance of Singapore as the meeting point of East and West is becoming ever clearer.
However, the Singapore summit is only the first step in a long process. The Trump administration has repeatedly stressed the importance of North Korea’s “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” President Trump could also be planning to take away any credit away from Beijing, in case the summit goes well.
What is apparent from the recent goings-on is that the Trump administration is rapidly cutting down on Beijing’s space for diplomatic maneuvering on the Korean front. This could be a part of a well-thought-out plan of the Trump team to ratchet up the pressure on Beijing on other fronts.
Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is with the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.