By Hunter Marston
Many analysts have noted the advantages Singapore provides as a setting for the upcoming summit between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. As Joshua Kurlantzick recently wrote on this blog, “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.” The Singapore location, in this argument, may allow the two leaders more time to hammer out some kind of deal, while Singapore’s skillful diplomatic corps and experience with summit could help prevent any gaffes and possibly bridge any divides.
But the location of the summit alone will not significantly impact the outcome of this high-stakes meeting; the choice of Singapore may not even have the modest impact on the summit that Kurlantzick predicts. Indeed, optics given Singapore’s neutral diplomatic position (it maintains diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and has close ties with the United States) are unlikely to dictate the summit’s end result. In fact, rather than lowering expectations for the summit, if anything the location significantly elevates North Korea’s prestige by providing an opportunity for the two leaders to meet on an equal footing. Moreover, Singapore’s openness to international media means that coverage of the event will be far more intensive than if the event had been held at the DMZ or in North Korea, where Kim’s regime would have some control of the optics, along with South Korea.
From a logistical point of view, Singapore indeed presents an ideal place to hold such a weighty meeting between two bitter adversaries. In 2015, Singapore successfully hosted the historic meeting between former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese president Xi Jinping, the first such face-to-face between Taiwanese and Chinese leaders.
The city state has a wealth of experience in organizing high-profile conferences bringing together heads of state. The well-known annual Shangri-La Dialogue, which just wrapped up this past Sunday, this year featured a keynote address by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as notable speeches by U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen.
Yet Singapore’s eminent status as an economic and diplomatic hub—enhanced by the rush of international journalists filling the country’s hotels—ups the ante for both sides and shifts the world’s attention onto city-state.
Expectations are at a fever pitch this week, as U.S. foreign policy analysts have weighed in with a litany of op-eds outlining the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough – or failure leading to war. As Bruce Jones of the Brookings Institution warns, “The risks of war are higher now than before the drive to the summit.” As Rosa Brooks of Georgetown Law School points out, by denigrating the efforts of past presidential administrations, Trump has significantly raised expectations that he will secure a better deal and in so doing has reduced the likelihood of an agreement that favors the United States. Moreover, the divide in perceptions between Washington and Pyongyang remains acute: each side insists on its own understanding of what a satisfactory outcome for a summit would look like. The White House has doubled down on its definition of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” But the North has so far refrained from embracing this point. As such, when the two leaders show up to the negotiating table this week, there are no guardrails for the road ahead. As policy analysts have noted, lower-level meetings typically lay the groundwork for such a meeting to finalize certain details by way of a formal agreement. But without certain parameters for the leadership summit in place ahead of the discussion (not to mention the diligent policy work that must take place behind the scenes in a gutted State Department), Trump and Kim may find themselves with little guidance.
If the event were to be held on the Korean Peninsula, it would entail certain tradeoffs. If it took place in Pyongyang, Trump would have to bestow Kim the honor of an unprecedented official visit (Bill Clinton had considered such a trip in 2000 but decided against it). If the event took place on the Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ), the focus would remain on the Koreas as host nations with the United States as a foreign interloper.
As laid out above, Singapore presents unique advantages for the meeting: world-class security and intelligence personnel, quality infrastructure and luxury hotels, and above all a neutral political atmosphere.
Nevertheless, instead of reducing expectations or lowering the potential for drama, Singapore’s attractiveness as a venue for such a high-stakes meeting only elevates the nature of the summit and intensifies the pressure cooker for high-wire diplomacy.
Yet few are more adept at controlling the media spotlight than President Trump. That fact may grant some reassurance of the United States’ advantage. But anything could happen with this unprecedented meeting between two of the most unpredictable personalities in world politics.
Hunter Marston (@hmarston4) is an independent Southeast Asia analyst in Washington, DC. He co-authored a chapter on Singapore in a forthcoming volume, Asia’s Quest for Balance: China’s Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).