The “talks about the talks” have been long underway, with each side seeking to arrive at the US-North Korea summit in the strongest position. The venue for the Singapore event has almost certainly been decided, and officials are apparently buying up rooms in hotels that meet the logistical and security requirements for what may be among the most significant geopolitical encounters since the end of the Cold War.
And a month before Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are scheduled to meet, both men are busily engaged in shadow boxing and brinksmanship. Last week, North Korea surprised everyone when it cancelled an event with South Korea and threatened to call off its meeting with the US, in what appeared to be a response to US national security adviser John Bolton saying Pyongyang ought to give up all its nuclear weapons as a starting point.
Now, in what may be the latest display of diplomatic maneuvering, it has been reported Mr Trump is suddenly having second thoughts about the meeting. Having initially approached his meeting with Mr Kim with typical swagger and appearing pleased by suggestions he would win the Nobel Peace Prize for doing so, Mr Trump is said to be increasingly cornered the meeting could end up as a political embarrassment, and not the historic, presidency-defining event he wants it to be.
The highly anticipated meeting between Kim Jong Un and myself will take place in Singapore on June 12th. We will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 10, 2018
While he is not yet threatening to pull out, a report in the New York Times said he had in recent days “peppered aides with questions about the wisdom of proceeding”. It said on Saturday night, he called President Moon Jae-in of South Korea to ask why the North’s public statement seemed to contradict the private assurances previously given.
It is not clear whether Mr Trump is simply mirroring Mr Kim with his “hot-cold” approach to the pre-summit positioning. Some believe Mr Trump – desperate to pull off a meeting that none of his predecessors could achieve – has appeared too enthusiastic, potentially giving leverage to his North Korean counterpart.
Christine Ahn, a Korea expert and founder of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women that has worked for peace on the Korean peninsula, said both sides wanted the meeting to happen.
“Trump wants a deal. He wants a legacy. And of course, North Korea wants it,” Ms Ahn told The Independent. “And the circumstances are vastly different to any time before because of the efforts of [South Korean leader] Moon Jae-in and his team.”
Yet, Ms Ahn said for all of secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s claims the US and North Korean leaders have a “shared understanding” of the summit’s objectives, the reality might be different.
While the US says its aim is “complete irreversible, verifiable denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula, there appear to be different definitions of what that means, and how it might be reached. Meanwhile, said Ms Ahn, North Korea wants “a phased agreement”.
“Let’s start establishing trust and move to the next process – that is what Kim wants,” she said.
The US’s negotiating team is said to be small, and has been led by Mr Pompeo and the white haired Andrew Kim, head of the CIA’s Korea Mission Centre, who was the subject of widespread headlines in the region because the colour of his hair made him stand out so sharply in official photographs of their discussions.
Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported it was Mr Kim who prepared the way for Mr Pompeo’s own talks with the North Korean leadership, which he participated in, over the Easter weekend. Those preparations had involved him attending the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, with Vice President Mike Pence and Ivanka Trump.
It said while he was in South Korea, he met a high-ranking official of North Korea’s United Front Department, a body of the all-powerful Workers’ Party of Korea. It said when Kim Jong-un made his first trip abroad as North Korean leader and visited China for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Andrew Kim also flew to Beijing and met again with United Front Department officials
In Singapore, preparations for the planned summit are said to be intense.
“I would say there are hundreds if not thousands of hours put into summit preparations,” Patrick McEachern, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre and a former State Department official, told the Associated Press.
While the venue for the talks in the city state has not been announced, speculation has focussed on two large hotel resorts – the Shangri-La hotel and the Marina Bay Sands. The news agency said rooms in both appeared to be fully booked for the days covering the June 12 summit date.
The 747-room Shangri-La has much experience in hosting high-security events, including the 2015 summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the first meeting between leaders of the two sides since they split in 1949. The hotel also hosts the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, considered to be Asia’s most important security forum.
“The hotel has not received confirmation on the venue and is not in a position to make any comments on behalf of the stakeholders involved in the preparation of this summit,” Monica Alsagoff, Shangri-La’s communications director told the AP.
Yet it may be the Marina Bay Sands becomes the backdrop for the talks. The three-tower, 2,561-room property, which opened in 2011, is owned by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, whose billionaire chairman, Sheldon Adelson, was one of the biggest financial backers of Mr Trump’s 2016 presidential bid.
Mr Adelson, said to be the world’s 21st richest man and who is valued at $38.5bn, spent $82m during the 2016 election cycle and is an influential man, not only in the US but in East Asia. The Nikkei Asian Review said his business decisions could have an impact not only on Mr Trump, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jung-un.
Both Mr Abe and Mr Xi want to expand casino gambling in their countries to help boost their economies. North Korea may also wish to do so; the city of Sinuiju, which sits on the border with China, has been identified as one possible site.
The 84-year-old Mr Adelson, whose Las Vegas Sands received a one-time gain of $670m as a result of Mr Trump’s tax bill, recently agreed to donate $30m to a fund intended to stop the Republicans losing control of the House of Representatives in the November midterms.
News of his donation was followed by Mr Trump’s announcement that he was pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear deal and moving its Israel embassy to Jerusalem, two things that had long been policy priorities for Mr Adelson.
Val Chua, communications director at Marina Bay Sands, told the AP: “As the official venue of the summit has not been announced yet, Marina Bay Sands has no comments on your questions relating to the event.”