Singapore: A fantasy castle dominates the approach to Singapore’s resort island of Sentosa, where US President Donald Trump will meet privately for an hour with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Tuesday morning.
The world will wait, as behind closed doors, the erratic Trump sizes up the unknown Kim to decide whether the 30-something dictator is serious about giving up the nuclear weapons that, just six months ago, he had appeared to relish terrifying the world with.
It will take “minutes” to make this judgement call, Trump has said.
President Donald Trump, left, listens as he meets with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ahead of the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Only after the one-hour meeting (if it lasts that long) in which the two leaders will be accompanied only by translators, will senior North Korean and US officials join the summit.
But is it a fantasy to think that such a meeting, hastily prepared in just three months, and with lead negotiators holding last-ditch meetings a day prior to try to find common ground, can lead to anything close to a concrete deal for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula?
Previous White House administrations had denied Kim, his father and grandfather, the "reward" of a face-to-face meeting with a sitting US president.
During his preparation period, Trump continued on Monday to publicly brawl on Twitter with US allies over trade. But on the ground in Singapore, he maintained a surprising restraint in his public comments about the historic encounter he clearly hopes may define his presidency.
“I think things can work out very nicely,” Trump said briefly of Tuesday’s summit, before a lunch with Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong.
The top US and North Korean negotiators had earlier emerged from a last-ditch meeting at the Ritz Carlton with pursed lips, and no sign of whether an attempt to narrow the gap between US and North Korean expectations of what denuclearisation should look like, had worked.
But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the two-hour meeting on Monday morning was “substantive and detailed”. He released a photograph from inside the room of North Korean vice foreign minister Choi Sun-hee smiling across the table at the US lead negotiator, the Philippines ambassador Sung Kim.
Whether they could agree to a draft document will likely determine whether Kim and Trump can sign a tangible “outcome” at the summit.
At 10am, Choi strode into the Ritz Carlton with her team of four. Ambassador Kim arrived with one advisor, past a scrum of television cameras.
Choi’s fiery outburst at Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence had a fortnight ago been blamed for Trump suddenly, and briefly, cancelling the summit.
But Choi and Sung have since met five times at the demilitarised zone in South Korea in a whirlwind of diplomacy to get the historic meeting on track.
Pompeo had earlier tweeted a photograph at breakfast with ambassador Kim, stating the US position was unchanged: “We remain committed to the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
North Korea wants a staged approach to dismantling its nuclear weapons program and a security guarantee from the US in return.
A security guarantee could come in the form a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War. But any request for the US to withdraw its 28,000 troops from South Korean bases would likely be rejected.
Expectations for the summit were being tempered by South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who said: "The deep-rooted hostile relationship and the North Korean nuclear issue cannot be resolved in one single action in a meeting between leaders.”
“Even after the two leaders open the dialogue, we will need a long process that may take one year, two years or even longer to completely resolve the issues.”
But the spectacle was absorbing. Singapore residents lined downtown streets to watch Trump’s armoured vehicle, dubbed The Beast, travel from the Shangri-La hotel.
Curious onlookers wait for the departure of Donald Trump’s motorcade from Singapore’s presidential palace.
Kim’s entourage is staying at the St Regis, less than 10 minutes walk away, with a motorcade that features a dozen North Korean bodyguards in dark suits who jog in Singapore’s drenching heat beside his armoured car.
Singapore has spent $S20 million hosting the summit, half of that on security costs, with Lee saying it was “in our profound interest” to contribute to such an international endeavour.
Yellow barricades line the roads on Sentosa island. The Capella hotel, set among luxury resorts, lush gardens, and across the road from a roller coaster, is the site of Tuesday’s meeting.
Singaporeans are taking the inconvenience of major road closures across the city with good humour and hope.
‘The Beast’: Donald Trump’s armoured limo on the streets of Singapore.
On the streets, Kim and Trump impersonators thrilled around 100 fans who paid $10 to take selfies at Bugis Junction mall at the weekend. The fake negotiators remained out of sight as the real men hit the streets on Monday.
The cost of hosting around 2000 international media was put at $S5 million, but Lee said the publicity and boost for Singapore’s international standing was worth it.
Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, who assisted with the lowering of tensions between North Korea and the international community by attending the Winter Olympics in South Korea, is among the North Korean delegation.
Likely to attend the summit with Trump are Pompeo, Bolton and White House chief of staff John Kelly.
Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump impersonators, Howard X, left, and Dennis Alan, jump together as they pose for photographs on Friday.
Ponsei University’s John Delury told Singapore broadcaster AsiaNews that Trump was a disruptive force in traditional diplomacy but his tactics of a one-on-one meeting could work.
“He is going to make a basic assessment … is this guy serious or is, as some people think, this all a ruse and a North Korean deception?”
Korean Studies Institute director David Kang said: “The most we can hope to get out of this is that Kim and Trump find that they can have some working relationship.”
North Korea’s official newspaper Rodong Sinmun proclaimed Kim’s arrival in Singapore on its front page, in unusually swift coverage of his international visit.
The summit would discuss “building a permanent and durable peacekeeping mechanism on the Korean Peninsula, the issue of realising denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” and other issues “as required by the changed era”.
The North Korean news agency KCNA reported the summit meeting was being watched by the world and there were great expectations.
Trump on Monday morning was upbeat: “Great to be in Singapore, excitement is in the air!”
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