Why North Korea's Kim Jong-un feels comfortable with Singapore

A genera view showing Singapore's famous Merlion Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Kims are said to feel comfortable in Singapore, even visiting the country for medical tests

After weeks of speculation it's finally been announced - tiny little Singapore will host the historic Trump-Kim Jong-un summit.

The "little red dot" beat the DMZ, Mongolia and even Beijing as a place for the meeting to be held.

President Trump has shown that you don't need China - North Korea's most important trading partner - to talk to Pyongyang.

Still, it does beg the question. Besides a great airport and some neatly manicured gardens, why Singapore?

North Korea feels comfortable here

There aren't many countries North Korea has done business with. Singapore is high on the list, coming in at number eight in 2016, but that only made up 0.2% of the North's trade.

Up until late last year, Singapore was still trading some goods with North Korea, and it was only recently that visa-free travel between the two stopped.

Singapore is one of the few countries that still hosts a North Korean embassy and, despite UN sanctions, at least two Singaporean companies have allegedly continued to do business with North Korea as I found during an investigation earlier in the year - allegations the two firms deny.

Meanwhile, ships carrying cargo between Pyongyang and Singapore often go unchecked or unpatrolled, partly because of a lack of close monitoring by Singapore authorities, as the Washington Post reported in 2016.

But it's more than that. The Kims themselves feel extremely comfortable here, according to intelligence sources I've spoken with. It is a country they feel safe in. They used to have bank accounts here, and also are believed to have come here for medical tests.

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Image caption In theory, there is no danger of Mr Kim being drawn into human rights abuse cases while he is in Singapore

"The DPRK [North Korea] and Singapore have close economic and diplomatic ties," says Michael Madden of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Singapore's ministry of foreign affairs has said to me on past occasions when I've reported on North Korean activities in Singapore, that the city state has banned its financial institutions from providing financial assistance or services for facilitating any trade with North Korea.

Singapore is neutral territory

There are other non-economic reasons why Singapore could be attractive.

As Ankit Panda of The Diplomat points out, one reason why Singapore would be acceptable to Kim Jong-un is because it is a "non-party, non signatory state to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court", so in theory there's no danger of the North Korean leader being drawn into human rights abuse cases while he's here.

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Image caption Singapore's Shangri-la hotel is a regular host of international diplomatic events

Singapore is also unlikely to be the scene of protests against Kim or Trump - it is after all, a country where public assemblies without a police permit are banned.

There's also a historical precedent: in 2015 Singapore played host to another high profile but potentially controversial meeting - between China's and Taiwan's leaders.

America's ally - and China's too

It's not easy being a geopolitical player in the current climate. It means having to deal with a volatile American leader and navigate the rise of China too. But Singapore has done a fairly decent job of both, notwithstanding some missteps.

"Geopolitics in the age of Trump is highly complex to say the least," as Dheeraj Bharwani, an independent wealth manager in the city state told me. "Singapore being chosen is testament to its deft bridge building with all major players - the US, China and North Korea."

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Image caption Singapore's Prime Minister and President Trump are pictured here together at the White House

Singapore's deft diplomacy in playing both sides isn't the only thing going for it.

It's known in the region as the banker to Asean - by that I mean a safe, discreet place where you can do business and not that many questions will be asked about what you're up to - as long as you stick to the spirit of Singapore's legal framework.

But while previous US administrations like the Clinton or Obama White House may have tried to persuade Singapore to stop doing business with Pyongyang altogether, ironically it is the close links between the two sides that may have helped cement Singapore as the choice of venue.

Ultimately, Singapore is where international business deals increasingly take place in the region.

So don't think of this meeting between Pyongyang and Washington as just a political meeting. Think of it as a business negotiation, led by two of the biggest deal-makers on the global political scene right now - with Singapore playing the role of arbitrator, and a glamorous host.

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