World News

Singapore Gets Ready for the World’s Spotlight

Posted June 8, 2018 9:21 p.m. EDT

SINGAPORE — For a couple of world leaders looking to get away to work on their relationship, Singapore has some obvious advantages.

On the law-and-order front, bullhorns, banners, drones and spray paint have all been banned around the resort island where President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are expected to hold their historic summit meeting Tuesday. And street demonstrations of any sort, even solitary ones, require a police permit that would be hard to come by given the circumstances.

Singapore’s strict security was a selling point in deciding the summit meeting’s location, and it has already come into play. Singaporean police announced Friday that two South Korean journalists who were trespassing in the North Korean ambassador’s residence had been arrested. And a Kim impersonator from Hong Kong posted on social media that he was questioned for a few hours upon arriving in Singapore.

The country’s history as a trading center and neutral diplomatic player also makes it one of the few places in the world with relatively cordial ties to both North Korea and the United States.

The American Chamber of Commerce of Singapore, for example, has more than 5,000 members representing more than 750 companies. Direct investment by U.S. companies exceeds $259 billion.

Singapore also has ties with North Korea that date back to 1975, when the two countries established diplomatic relations. North Korea maintained low-level business operations here until November, when Singapore had to suspend trade under toughened United Nations sanctions.

“In a six-hour flight radius from Pyongyang, there are few cities that can offer the same level of familiarity, a high level of security, and still be seen as neutral to both parties,” said Geoffrey See, founder of the Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based group that teaches Western business methods to North Koreans.

“Security is clearly on top of the North Korean elite’s mind, and their making a highly visible trip this far is in itself a rarity,” he added.

Though North Korea does have a diplomatic presence in Singapore, it can be hard to spot. The embassy is a small office on the 15th floor of a high-rise that overlooks the scenic Singapore River. Nearby are some of Singapore’s most important government centers, including Parliament and the Supreme Court.

But there is no mention of North Korea in the office building’s directory. Nor is there an intimidating security presence in the hallways. There is just a sign outside the locked office door that reads: “EMBASSY OF THE DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF KOREA IN THE REPUBLIC OF SINGAPORE.”

Before trade was suspended, Singapore ranked among North Korea’s top 10 trading partners, although the amount of business was minuscule. One popular item shipped by Singapore to North Korea was the canned coffee drink Pokka, See said.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan of Singapore said the presence of the embassy and the trading relationship were important factors in the North Korean’s leadership’s willingness to meet here.

“They know that we take a principled, neutral, fair-minded approach to foreign policy,” he said. “This expression of confidence and trust in us is important and valuable.”

The meeting will be at the Capella Singapore, a five-star hotel on Sentosa, a triangle-shaped island that was once most famous for being a haven for pirates. In those days it was known as Pulau Blakang Mati, literally the “Island Behind Death.” Later, when Singapore was occupied by Japan during World War II, it was one of several massacre sites where Chinese men were shot by Japanese troops, who threw the bodies into the sea.

Today, Sentosa is promoted by Singapore as “the State of Fun,” dominated by resorts and theme parks. On the island’s southwestern face, the Capella hotel is bracketed by Universal Studios Singapore and two golf courses.

The hotel is a blend of modern and colonial buildings, with some dating to the 1880s. Peacocks roam the grounds, and rooms start at around $500 a night.

The Capella overlooks the Singapore Strait not far from where the U.S. Navy suffered one of its biggest disasters in recent years. In August, as the destroyer John S. McCain entered the crowded waterway, it collided with an oil tanker, killing 10 sailors.

Trump and Kim are expected to stay at two five-star hotels on the mainland about 20 minutes from Sentosa: Trump at the Shangri-La and Kim at the nearby St. Regis. The area around those hotels, and all of Sentosa, have been designated as security zones. People entering those areas are subject to body and bag searches to check for weapons and the prohibited protest items.

Smaller and even more restrictive security zones have been established around the meeting site and the hotels where the leaders and their delegations are expected to stay.

“You have two leaders for whom there is no shortage of security considerations,” Balakrishnan said. “So knowing that all that is in hand is absolutely crucial.” Singapore has often hosted international diplomatic talks, including the 2015 meeting between President Xi Jinping of China and President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan. And it has long had an image as a center for trade and exchange, dating back to at least the 14th century.

In 1824, Singapore, at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, became a British colony, and it gained its independence as part of Malaysia in 1963. In 1965, they parted ways, Malaysia with an ethnic Malay majority and Singapore with an ethnic Chinese majority.

Since then, Singapore has grown into a wealthy city-state and financial center. It is sometimes likened to Switzerland for its relative political neutrality and its history of serving as banker in a region of dictators and oligarchs.

Singapore’s $10,000 bank note — worth about $7,500 U.S. dollars — has long been a favorite of the region’s smugglers and illegal logging kingpins. Although Singapore began withdrawing the note in 2014, an untold number remain in circulation.

Nevertheless, Singapore has maintained a squeaky clean image and a reputation for imposing strict discipline, including capital punishment for convicted drug dealers.

Balakrishnan, the foreign minister, said the idea of having the summit meeting in Singapore was broached by the United States.

“I think Singaporeans can be proud. Proud that we’ve been chosen because they know that we are neutral, reliable, trustworthy and secure,” he told reporters during a visit to Washington this week.