World News

Planning Trump-Kim Meeting: Who Sits Where, What Will They Eat and Who Pays?

Posted June 3, 2018 6:08 p.m. EDT

TOKYO — It seems as if all they would really need is a room with a table and some chairs.

The reality, however, is that planning the coming summit meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un to discuss North Korea’s nuclear future will require deciding countless, infinitesimal details, often via tricky diplomatic negotiations.

It does not help that any of those details could be thrown out at the last minute by either leader, both of whom have shown a tendency to depart from the script.

Even before Trump declared last Friday that the summit meeting was back on, delegations from the United States and North Korea had arrived in Singapore last week to work out the logistics of the June 12 conference.

The two sides will be negotiating everything from the site of the meeting to which leader sits where at the table, who is allowed in the room with them, the number of meals and breaks, what to use in a toast between the two leaders (given that Trump does not drink alcohol), what gifts could be exchanged and who will pay for what.

Without question, the top priority for both sides is security. As the host country, Singapore will be in charge of ensuring security on roads and in other public facilities, but the United States and North Korea will oversee the safety of their own leaders.

Any time the U.S. president makes an international trip, he is accompanied by a legion of Secret Service personnel, as well as by limousines, helicopters and other protective vehicles. Kim has little experience traveling abroad as leader. Singapore will be the farthest distance he has traveled since coming to power in 2011.

It is unusual for two leaders to hold a one-on-one summit meeting in a third country unless they are meeting on the sidelines of an international gathering. With Singapore as the venue, Trump may have an upper hand, veteran diplomats said.

Kim is likely to feel more uncomfortable “the farther away you do it from the Korean Peninsula,” said Evans J.R. Revere, a former State Department diplomat who specializes in East Asia. “That would work to Trump’s advantage.”

Officials have not yet announced exactly where the landmark meeting will take place in Singapore. The Shangri-La Hotel has been favored by previous U.S. presidents as a place to stay, while a former Singaporean official suggested that the meeting between Trump and Kim was likely to take place on the resort island of Sentosa, just off the southern tip of Singapore. Joe Hagin, a deputy White House chief of staff, has been staying on the island. Another Singaporean official suggested that there could be a series of events held at different locations.

On Friday, The Washington Post reported that the team led by Hagin was haggling with a group of North Korean bureaucrats led by Kim Chang Son, the director of North Korea’s state affairs commission secretariat, over who would pay the hotel bill for Kim and his entourage.

North Korea has been known to push other governments to pay its expenses when its officials travel abroad. During the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea in February, for example, the South Korean government paid the hotel, meal and transportation expenses, about $225,000, for a North Korean delegation that included Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister.

South Korea also paid an additional $121,000 for a delegation from North Korea to attend the Paralympic Games.

Speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security conference over the weekend, Ng Eng Hen, the Singaporean defense minister, said his government was willing to pay for some of the costs of the North Korean summit meeting. He did not specify how much Singapore would pay or what exactly it would cover.

The question of who will pay for what goes to the heart of who is really hosting the meeting. That question hovers over many other decisions, including who will determine the menus for meals, as well as who walks into the meeting venue first.

“It will all be choreographed through with the president and Mr. Kim,” said Wendy R. Sherman, a seasoned former American diplomat who accompanied Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000 to meet Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il. Each side, she said, will “try to add some steps to get advantage.” While Trump is known to approach encounters with foreign leaders in a casual manner or to disregard formal protocol, diplomats who have planned previous meetings with North Korean officials say they are highly status conscious and will pay attention to details such as which side of the table Kim is seated.

Typically, the person with the higher status enters the summit venue last and sits farthest from the door, said a Japanese official who had attended past dialogues between Japanese and North Korean officials. One solution: Choose a room with two entrances.

Speaking of entrances, event planners will check locks on the doors beforehand. In 2005, when President George W. Bush met President Ju Hintao in Beijing, Bush briefed reporters in a room and then tried to go out a door that was locked.

Details down to how many steps each leader should take before stopping for cameras will be meticulously planned. In staging photo opportunities, the two sides may negotiate whether flags from both countries will appear in any official pictures from the summit meeting.

“Will they recognize North Korea formally as a country?” said Mitoji Yabunaka, a longtime diplomat and former vice minister at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, explaining the significance of a North Korean flag possibly being displayed when the United States and North Korea do not formally have diplomatic relations.

Perhaps the biggest advantage for the United States in holding the meeting in Singapore is that it is not in Pyongyang, where the North Koreans would control every detail.

“Having this in Singapore is a big plus because you’re not at the mercy of the North Koreans,” Sherman said. During Albright’s trip to Pyongyang in 2000, North Korean officials were “unable really to commit to specific times and places, and we did not find out where and when Secretary Albright would meet with Kim Jong Il until she arrived,” said Thomas Hubbard, a former U.S. diplomat and ambassador to Seoul and the Philippines who helped plan Albright’s trip and accompanied her to Pyongyang.

With optics likely to play as big a role as substance in the Singapore meeting, the third-country location should prevent North Korea from staging a propaganda coup as it did when Kim Jong Il took Albright to a mass stadium event in Pyongyang, where she had to sit next to him at a spectacle of performers celebrating the cult of their leader.

The younger Kim could still pull off a propaganda victory even if he is not at home. In his first meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in April at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, Kim captivated the world with a simple gesture when he held out his hand and suggested that Moon briefly step over the demarcation line to the North.

Diplomats who have previously met with North Korean officials said the North Koreans could foil well-laid plans simply by refusing to participate or by changing their tone.

“The American diplomats should be careful,” said Takeo Harada, a former Japanese diplomat who was the chief desk officer for the North Korean desk in the Foreign Ministry when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang. “Even though they could be very friendly during preparation talks, you never know how the North Korean side would behave in the last moment during the meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un.”