- Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images
- Despite threatening to pull out of the June 12 summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, North Korea craves the legitimacy the meeting would bring.
- Traveling by plane to a neutral destination away from the Korean Peninsula could show Kim as a competent world leader.
- That would add to the level of legitimacy granted by Kim just being able to meet with Trump, regardless of the location or outcome.
- But Singapore also symbolizes Trump’s desire to move away from South Korea as an intermediary between the US and North Korea – and that neither needs to rely on South Korea.
Despite threatening to pull out of a June 12 summit with US President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un flying to Singapore to meet Trump would give Kim the one thing he craves most: legitimacy.
North Korea has long wanted to be seen and treated like any other country, and its nuclear development was seen by many as a means to achieve that end. And now that the meeting will be hosted in a country away from the Korean Peninsula, that outcome appears closer than ever.
“What the North Koreans want to do is demonstrate that they are a peer partner of the US, and doing [the summit] outside of South Korea is a net benefit for them,” Euan Graham, the director of the Lowy Institute’s international-security program, told Business Insider.
“That’s why I think Kim is prepared to take this risk of flying all the way there, even though that is unprecedented … because what he wants is this optic of meeting Trump as his nuclear equal on a grand stage and with South Korea not present,” Graham added. “I think that’s more effective as a symbol for him.”
The last time a North Korean leader flew internationally was in 1986, when Kim Jong Un’s grandfather went to the Soviet Union. Kim’s father much preferred traveling by train, and it had been rumored that Pyongyang did not have a plane capable of flying Kim to an international destination.
Recently, Kim flew to visit President Xi Jinping in Dalian, China. It could have been a practice run for flying to Singapore, something that could show the world that the head of North Korea travels and operates like any other world leader.
Singapore offers a high level of security and has experience facilitating global meetings. From a scheduling point of view, it will have hosted national-security leaders for Asia’s premier defense summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, just over a week before Trump and Kim’s meeting.
Attending the summit in Singapore may also help Trump – who had followed US precedent in allowing South Korea to take the lead on dialogue with North Korea – to appear as though he is taking control of the talks.
But regardless of the venue or outcome, any meeting between Trump and Kim will be seen as a huge propaganda win for North Korea, according to Robert Kelly, an expert on politics at South Korea’s Pusan National University.
“If it’s a bust, it’s still a win for the North Koreans, because you get the photograph of the North Korean leader meeting the American president one-to-one,” Kelly said last week while speaking on a panel about North Korea at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in Australia.
North Korea has wanted that moment for decades – the minute Kim meets Trump, his leadership and the North Korean government become legitimized.
“North Korea is a tin-pot dictatorship, and meeting the leader of the free world is automatically legitimacy branding,” Kelly said. “If you’re the North Koreans, you want to meet them because it symbolizes you’re a real country, not a backward, feudal, Orwellian fiefdom, which is what North Korea really is.”