SINGAPORE – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Singapore on Sunday for an unprecedented summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, an attempt to address the last festering legacy of the Cold War. Trump has called it a “one time shot” at peace.
Trump arrived on Sunday evening at the island city-state’s Paya Lebar Air Base after traveling from Canada, where he attended a meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal — which has seen it subjected to several sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions and threatened with military action by the Trump administration — will top the agenda.
Bringing the Korean War to a formal end 65 years after hostilities ceased will also be on the table at the first-ever summit between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president of its “imperialist enemy.”
Kim arrived in Singapore aboard an Air China 747 that, according to flight tracking website Flightradar24, took off from Pyongyang Sunday morning ostensibly bound for Beijing, then changed its flight number midair and headed south.
The city-state’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, tweeted a picture of himself shaking hands with Kim at Changi Airport, and the North Korean leader was driven into the center in a stretch limousine, accompanied by a convoy of more than 20 vehicles.
On Sunday evening Kim met with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Kim told Lee: “The entire world is watching the historic summit between the DPRK and the United States of America, and thanks to your sincere efforts . . . we were able to complete the preparation for the historic summit.”
DPRK is the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s formal name.
Authorities imposed tight security around the summit venue and related luxury hotels — including installing extra pot plants outside Kim’s expected accommodation to obstruct reporters’ views.
Tuesday’s Singapore meeting is the climax of the astonishing flurry of diplomacy on and around the Korean Peninsula this year, but critics charge that it risks being largely a triumph of style over substance.
Washington is demanding the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of the North, while Pyongyang has so far only made public pledges of its commitment to the denuclearization of the peninsula — a term open to wide interpretation — while seeking security guarantees.
Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage expected little progress on the key issue of defining denuclearization.
“The success will be in the shutter clicks of the cameras,” he said. “They both get what they want.”
Trump insisted last week that the summit will “not be just a photo op,” saying it will help forge a “good relationship” that would lead to a “process” toward the “ultimate making of a deal.”
But as he embarked for Singapore he changed his tune, calling it a “one-time shot” and adding he will know “within the first minute” whether an agreement will be possible.
“If I think it won’t happen, I’m not going to waste my time,” he said.
He has also dangled the prospect of Kim visiting Washington if the meeting goes well.
But even the merit of the event itself — long sought by the North, and which Trump apparently impulsively agreed to in March, reportedly without consulting his advisers — has been called into question.
“People call it a historic summit but . . . it is important to understand that this summit was available to any U.S. president who wanted to do it and the point is no U.S. president wanted to do this, and for good reasons,” said Christopher Hill, a former lead U.S. nuclear negotiator with North Korea.
The two countries have been at loggerheads for decades.
North Korean forces invaded the South in 1950 and the ensuing war saw U.S.-led U.N. troops backing Seoul fight their way to a stalemate against Pyongyang’s forces — which were aided by Russia and China — before the conflict ended in stalemate and an armistice which sealed the division of the peninsula.
Sporadic provocations by the North have continued while Pyongyang has made increasing advances in its nuclear arsenal, which it says it needs to defend against the risk of a U.S. invasion.
Last year it carried out by far its most powerful nuclear test to date and launched missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, sending tensions soaring to a level unseen in years as a newly-elected Trump traded threats of war and colorful personal insults with Kim, with Trump dubbed a “dotard” and Kim “Little Rocket Man.”
But the South’s Winter Olympics in February catalyzed a flurry of diplomatic moves as Seoul’s dovish leader, President Moon Jae-in, sought to bring the two sides together.
Kim has met twice with both Moon and Chinese President Xi Jinping. China has long been the North’s most important ally.
Pyongyang has taken some steps to show sincerity, returning U.S. detainees and blowing up its nuclear test site.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that progress is being made in bringing the two sides together in their understanding of denuclearization.
But Trump — for whom a major accomplishment would bolster his position ahead of midterm elections in November — baffled observers when he said he did not think he had to prepare “very much” for the summit.
“It’s about attitude,” Trump said. “So this isn’t a question of preparation.”