There may have been more than logistical reasons for the Trump administration’s choice of Singapore as the site for the U.S. president’s meeting on June 12 with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. And the reasons may involve more than the issue of denuclearization, the primary and ostensibly exclusive subject of the negotiation. Pyongyang’s rationale for accepting the Southeast Asian city-state probably stems from motives that are the mirror-image opposite.
Why Singapore? Before addressing that question, it is worth asking why not any of the other locations that made the short list. Pyongyang and Beijing, eliminating the need for the travel-averse Kim, would have been more than welcoming hosts to a beseeching Western visitor, but obviously unacceptable to the Americans for that same optical reason.
But, while the main square of the capital features a towering statue of Vladimir Lenin, reflecting its communist past, Mongolia prides itself on being the only democracy in that immediate region — which may not have appealed to Kim. In any event, the city’s infrastructure reportedly was deemed inadequate to handle the security and logistical requirements of the summit.
Finally, Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea offered all kinds of historic symbolism, which seemingly appealed to President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE for a time, but South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and Kim already made that scene and a Trump-Kim meeting might have appeared to be a second act.
So the historic confab will take place in the Republic of Singapore — not a truly representative democracy, not a “pure” dictatorship. Singapore is a security partner of the United States, strongly supportive of America’s continued active presence in Asia. It also is an ethnically, culturally and linguistically simpatico friend of China, welcoming its burgeoning economic prowess.
The North Koreans have an embassy in Singapore and will feel more comfortable being in another authoritarian Asian society without having the democratic models of either the West’s Switzerland or Asia’s Mongolia thrown in their face. They know that since Singapore gained its full independence in 1965, it has been a hereditary dictatorship, ruled by Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister for 30 years, followed by his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the incumbent since 2004. Kim no doubt sees the fellow family dynasty as providing an acceptable political ambiance.
Americans, however, might perceive Singapore as a democratic work in progress, with an established rule of law and independent judiciary, and a multi-party system that gains more credibility with each parliamentary election — though its first female president, Halimah Yacob, was installed last fall without an election. A more politically responsive system may be President Trump’s ultimate goal for North Korea, and Singapore’s gradual democratic evolution followed the South Korean and Taiwanese models. The North Koreans are looking at where Singapore has been politically; the Americans see where it is going.
Life can be good in Singapore, with its high ranking for economic freedom and the prosperity brought by two “integrated resorts” that have significantly boosted tourism. Their model is one that South Korea, at least, has considered, having invited Singapore’s former minister of development to a 2015 forum to discuss the successes of the Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa. But Singapore’s economy largely has been built on the backs of migrant workers who lack rights and protections, and freedom is only partial in Singapore, where a Pew Research survey finds “very high” restrictions imposed on exercising faith.
Trump’s high-intensity focus on North Korea’s execrable human rights record was on world display in three major speeches — at South Korea’s National Assembly, the United Nations, and the State of the Union address. They were followed by a lengthy and emotional White House visit by North Korean escapees — which seemed to signal that the president’s goals for North Korea go beyond denuclearization. Indeed, re-humanization of that tormented population may also be on the table in Singapore.
For all the city-state republic’s political imperfections, if Pyongyang could be persuaded to follow its milder authoritarian model, it would be a hugely welcome advance in the lives of the North Korean people. Jeffersonian democracy can await another day.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He previously taught a graduate seminar in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.