NEWS AND KNOWLEDGE

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Why Singapore is the Right Place for the Trump-Kim Summit

Among the possible contenders mentioned for the summit between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—Sweden, the Korean DMZ, Mongolia, Switzerland, as well as much more unlikely possibilities like North Korea itself—Singapore was probably the right choice for the event, and ultimately not such a surprising one. The city-state’s diplomatic corps and security and intelligence personnel are highly respected globally and shown repeatedly that they can host a major summit without allowing any significant security or intelligence slip-ups. The city state indeed has for decades hosted a wide range of regional security summits for Southeast Asian states, and, increasingly summits involving officials from across the world. Singaporean officials also have handled, many high-profile bilateral meetings, like the meeting in 2015 between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou. The country has an extensive array of hotels and other facilities whose staff are used to preparing for major events with tight security. The wealthy city-state also has said that it will assume some of the costs of the summit, a bonus that some other possible choices like Mongolia would not have been able to add.

The city-state also is much closer physically to North Korea than other potential sites like Switzerland or Sweden, which makes it easier for the North Koreans to travel. Yet it is not as remote as Mongolia, which possibly would have struggled to host an event of this potential importance.

Just as importantly, Singapore—like a number of countries in Southeast Asia—long has maintained ties with North Korea, as well as close links to the United States. Singapore has had diplomatic ties with Pyongyang for more than forty years, and had trade relations, like many Southeast Asian states, until the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, in Malaysia last year and the Trump administration’s campaign of applying greater pressure on the North through further economic sanctions. Before 2016, North Koreans also could travel to Singapore visa-free, which allowed some North Korean elites, including probably ruling party officials, to visit the city-state for services like medical care and shopping, and give them some familiarity with Singapore.

Before that killing, and the ramping up of international sanctions on the North for its nuclear program, many Southeast Asian states appeared to be soliciting greater trade ties with Pyongyang, which was beginning to reform its economy and invite in outside investment. Last November, Singapore suspended trade with North Korea. Still, this history of links may make Kim Jong-un and other North Korean leaders relatively comfortable with a summit in Singapore. China and Singapore also have longstanding, if sometimes wary, relations, and Beijing probably preferred Singapore to a summit in Mongolia, Sweden, or Switzerland.

Meanwhile, although Singapore is not an official U.S. treaty ally, it is probably, at this point, the United States’s closest security partner in Southeast Asia, as well as a major trading partner. U.S. officials, throughout multiple administrations, generally have a high degree of trust in Singaporean intelligence, political leaders, and diplomats, and have worked closely with Singapore on a wide range of strategic issues. In addition, as some other commentators have noted, choosing Singapore reduces the expectations (slightly) of the summit, making it a (slightly) more low-key affair than if the two leaders had met in the DMZ or North Korea where the summit would have been even more dramatic.