SINGAPORE — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has carried his charm offensive to this island city state, building on the excitement and exhilaration that he’s been generating ever since announcing in January that he would henceforth focus on economic development, not nukes and missiles.
Kim, with younger sister Kim Yo Jong trailing close behind, was all smiling joviality as he arrived from Pyongyang on an Air China 747 and then was driven in a slow motorcade to meet Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at his palatial residence and office complex, the Istana.
Kim’s own guards, in black business suits, trotted along beside his limousine, but Kim projected the image of an altogether pleasant, confident guest, poised but informal as he sat down with Lee for a welcoming chat that clearly was intended to set the tone that he’ll maintain when he sees President Trump at a resort hotel on secluded Sentosa Island, a few miles away.
As he has done so often since sending sister Yo Jong to the winter Olympics in the South Korean resort of Pyeongchang in February, Kim clearly had stolen a march on Trump, who arrived several hours later on Air Force One from his bruising encounters with the leaders of the other G7 countries in Charlevoix, Canada. Trump pays the ritual call on Lee on Monday, the day before the summit, while Kim remains at the St. Regis Hotel, the luxury lodging where he and his retinue will be staying for the next two days.
The atmosphere surrounding the entire visit was fraught with such excitement that it was hard to imagine the summit could end in disillusionment or disappointment. Kim from his demeanor clearly was here to show that he wanted to enter a new era in relations with the U.S.
Trump did nothing to dispel the mood, saying he felt “very good” about the summit as his motorcade left Paya Lebar Air Base, where Air Force One landed after a flight of nearly 20 hours from Canada. Earlier, he seemed just as exuberant as Kim. “It will certainly be an exciting day,” he tweeted. “I know that Kim Jong Un will work very hard to do something that has rarely been done before. … Create peace and great prosperity for his land.” He had “a feeling that this one-time opportunity will not be wasted!”
Such confidence, however, contrasted with worries that almost anything could happen.
The fact that Air Force One flew into a military base while the Air China plane carrying Kim and his entourage touched down at the civilian Changi International Airport showed the overwhelming concerns here about security. Traffic to and from the air base was totally stopped as Trump was about to arrive, as was traffic to and from Changi Airport. Elite Singapore soldiers guarded intersections and surrounded the super-luxury lodgings where the leaders and their entourages were staying—Trump in the Shangri-la and Kim in the St. Regis. The Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island was dedicated totally to the summit.
Both leaders arrived with their most trusted aides and advisors in tow. With Kim, besides little sister Yo Jong, was Kim Yong Chol, the vice chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, who last week met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York before seeing both Trump and Pompeo in Washington.
Trump was accompanied by Pompeo as well as his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, who was cut out of the meeting with Kim Yong Chol in Washington after upsetting the North Koreans by suggesting they should give up their entire nuclear program, including the warheads in their inventory as well as the facilities for making them, as had the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. North Korea’s state media angrily retorted that the Libyan program had barely begun and, more importantly, that Gaddafi was killed eight years later by U.S.-supported rebels.
If there’s one word that’s sure to be taboo in Trump’s summit with Kim, it’s Libya.
With that topic out of the way, Trump and Kim may indeed come up with some formulation for a peace agreement intended to replace the armistice signed at Panmunjom that ended the Korean War in July 1953. A veteran U.S. negotiator on North Korea, Sung Kim, is believed to have been focusing on wording acceptable to both the U.S. and North Korea in talks with an assistant foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, over the past two weeks in Panmunjom.
Kim’s ingratiating appearance presumably reflects his confidence that he and Trump can get together on a declaration that does not commit North Korea definitely to getting rid of its nukes. The fact that he flew on a Chinese plane showed he has the full support of China in keeping with their alliance that dates from the Korean War, when Chinese troops drove the Americans and South Koreans from North Korea in the winter of 1950-1951.
If the two cannot agree on the wording, however, there’s always the chance the summit could go on longer than expected, maybe into a second day. Trump is not due to leave until Wednesday. As for Kim, he’s reportedly planning to depart on Tuesday afternoon after seeing Trump in the morning. Even if their summit lasts only two or three hours, it may be the precursor of many more hours of debate and haggling by negotiators from both sides—a process that does appear preferable to the war that both of them were threatening last year.