Neutral and stable, Singapore is natural choice for Trump-Kim

Singapore (AFP) –


With one foot in the East and one in the West, ultra-modern and secure -- to the point of sometimes being mocked as dull -- Singapore was a natural choice for the historic first meeting between the unpredictable leaders of the US and North Korea.

The stable and squeaky-clean city-state's tropical setting will be the backdrop for the June 12 summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un -- the first between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader.

The two men threatened each other with annihilation just months ago, so the choice of a neutral venue was a matter of considerable speculation, which also touched on the Korean peninsula's Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), China and Mongolia.

But Singapore -- sometimes likened to Switzerland due to its non-aligned nature and its status as a banking hub -- is in the rare position of having diplomatic relations with both Washington and Pyongyang, plus a track record of hosting sensitive encounters.

"As a neutral, and objective country with much-admired consistent foreign policy principles and a small state with no desire or capacity to harm other states and their interests, Singapore fits that bill well," said Lim Tai Wei, adjunct research fellow at the National University of Singapore's East Asia Institute.

One of the world's wealthiest countries per-capita, the island state of 5.6 million people has an advanced military, robust security infrastructure, and is considered one of the safest and least corrupt places on earth.

Situated between the much larger Muslim-majority nations of Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore has long been vigilant toward radical Islamic elements.

Single-party rule since independence from Britain nearly six decades ago has kept a lid on dissent -- prompting accusations of repression -- eliminating the possibility of any summit-related protests.

A selection of first-rate hotels and other possible venues where events can be tightly controlled is also likely to have made Singapore attractive, especially to Kim, who heads one of the world's most repressive regimes and will not welcome anything unexpected.

- Neutral ground -

Kim is only known to have travelled abroad for the first time this year, with visits to China and a brief sojourn across the high-security border into South Korea for a historic meeting with President Moon Jae-in in April.

In 2015, Singapore hosted a historic meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan's then-leader Ma Ying-jeou, the first between presidents of the two sides since a 1949 civil war split that led to decades of estrangement.

It also has experience hosting other leadership gatherings such as the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and stages the yearly Shangri-La Dialogue, a defence forum attended by heads of state, defence ministers and top military chiefs.

This year's forum at the Shangri-La hotel comes a week before Trump-Kim, meaning Singapore will already be in high-security mode, fuelling speculation that the hotel also will host the summit.

From Trump's standpoint, business-oriented Singapore is among Washington's closest trade and security partners in Asia.

Travelling there allows Trump to avoid the DMZ, which might have appeared like home turf for Kim, while a Beijing meeting could have allowed China to exert control.

Singapore "doesn't have the historical or political baggage" of other possible venues, said Sarah Teo, an expert on regional security at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

It also will be acceptable to Beijing, North Korea's only major ally and still a strong influence over Pyongyang. Singapore has long had smooth ties with China.

"A successful summit would be a huge feather in Singapore's cap, elevating its reputation for fair dealing and neutrality; but a less successful one will not take anything away from it," said a commentary piece in Singapore's The Straits Times.

Singapore and North Korea have a history -- the first law firm and fast-food restaurant in Pyongyang were set up by Singaporeans -- though relations snagged last year when Singapore severed trade ties under new UN sanctions punishing Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile programmes.