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Understanding the US-North Korea Summit – Special Advisory

8 Jun 2018

Donald Trump is set to meet with Kim Jong-un at a summit in Singapore on 12 June 2018. This marks the first meeting between a leader of North Korea and a sitting US President (Presidents Clinton and Carter both previously visited North Korea after having left office). The summit was cast into doubt when President Trump announced he had cancelled it on 24 May 2018, before reversing the decision on 01 June after receiving a letter from Kim Jong-un via a high-level North Korean official aide.

Key Points

  • Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump are set to meet in Sentosa, Singapore, on 12 June 2018.
  • This will be the first meeting between a leader of North Korea and a sitting US president.
  • It is unclear what should be expected of the summit but there are potential implications for the US, the Korean Peninsula, and the world as a whole.

Situational Summary

Political: Donald Trump is set to meet with Kim Jong-un at a summit in Singapore on 12 June 2018. This marks the first meeting between a leader of North Korea and a sitting US President (Presidents Clinton and Carter both previously visited North Korea after having left office). The summit was cast into doubt when President Trump announced he had cancelled it on 24 May 2018, before reversing the decision on 01 June after receiving a letter from Kim Jong-un via a high-level North Korean official aide.

The summit itself is set to take place at the five-star Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island in Singapore. The full details of the summit remain unclear and are likely to remain so for security reasons and to avoid undermining either side’s negotiating positions. Neither delegation is expected to stay at the hotel itself. President Trump is expected to stay at the Shangri-La Hotel, where US presidents have stayed before, while the St Regis Singapore is the most likely to accommodate Kim. Sentosa was likely selected for the security benefits of its position away from the mainland; there are only four ways to reach the island – a cable car, a monorail, a pedestrian causeway, and a vehicle tunnel.

The Background

It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to understate the significance of this summit. The prospect of any US president to meet North Korea’s Supreme Leader seemed near impossible prior to the beginning of 2018. President Trump’s rhetoric and temperament were called into question when, amongst other things, he promised “fire and fury” and mocked Kim as “little rocket man” in 2017. Tensions last year between Washington and Pyongyang were at their highest point in decades and there was much potentially dangerous discussion in the US administration and defence policy circles of a limited strike on North Korea, giving the hermit kingdom a “bloody nose”. Trump deserves praise, however, for pushing to meet with Kim. Neither Obama, Bush, nor Clinton met with a North Korean head of state as the nuclear crisis was developing.

2017 Key Events in the North Korean Crisis

01 January President Kim claims that North Korea could soon test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in a television address.

08 January Defence Secretary (of the Obama administration) Ash Carter claims that the US military will shoot down any North Korean missile fired at the United States or its allies.

12 January A US defence official reports that a sea-based radar system has been deployed to track long-range North Korean missile launches.

13 February Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur Airport in a plot most likely devised by Pyongyang.

04 July North Korea claims its first successful test of an ICBM which can “reach anywhere in the world” according to North Korean media.

25 July Pyongyang promises a nuclear strike on the US if it attempts to remove Kim as Supreme Leader.

07 August The US is accused by North Korea of trying to drive the Korean Peninsula to war.

08 August President Trump promises that if North Korea continues to threaten the US then it would face “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.

09 August North Korea announces its intention to begin planning operationally for military strikes on Guam.

03 September Pyongyang tests a nuclear device which they claim to be a hydrogen bomb, causing a 6.3 magnitude seismic event. In response, President Trump lambasted South Korea’s attempts at appeasement and called North Korea an embarrassment to China.

01 November The US military reports that North Korea is working on an advanced ICBM which could reach the continental United States.

28 November Officials in South Korea report that Pyongyang may be able to launch a nuclear warhead in 2018.

The mood changed dramatically as the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea approached. While relations remained frosty between US and North Korean dignitaries at the event (who notably sat metres apart at the Opening Ceremony without acknowledging each other’s attendance), South Korean President Moon’s liberal administration used the “Peace Games” to help thaw relations with North Korea. At the event, the Korea women’s ice hockey team included players from both North and South Korea and there were other cultural and sporting exchanges. Under Moon, Seoul has struck a delicate balance between Washington and Pyongyang in seeking to bring the two sides together. This eventually led to Kim and Moon meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom, the first such high-level meetings in 11 years. During the summit, Kim Jong-un became the first North Korean leader to enter South Korea. A series of conciliatory gestures by North and South, largely outside of Washington’s control, has led to the improbable 12 June 2018 meeting.

2018 Key Events in the North Korean Crisis

02 January President Trump ridicules Kim Jong-un over twitter, claiming to have a larger and functional nuclear button than the North Korean leader after Kim claimed he had a nuclear button on his desk.

10 January The White House announces that it is willing to hold talks with North Korea.

09 February The Winter Olympics begins. US Vice President Mike Pence and Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, both attend the opening ceremony. Kim Yo-jong holds talks with President Moon during her stay in South Korea.

06 March South Korea’s national security chief, Chung Eui-yong announces that Pyongyang is open to discussing abandoning its nuclear programme with the US.

08 March At the White House, Chung Eui-yong states that President Trump has accepted an invitation to meet with Kim Jong-un.

10 May Three Americans held in North Korea arrive back in the US, seen as a goodwill gesture from Pyongyang.

15 May North Korea abruptly cuts off high-level talks with South Korea, citing military exercises.

24 May President Trump calls off the planned summit.

24 May North Korea ‘destroys’ Punggye-ri nuclear site.

27 April President Moon meets with Kim Jong-un for an inter-Korean summit in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, the first inter-Korean summit in 11 years.

01 June Trump confirms that the summit on 12 June will take place as planned.

What has changed? The reason behind the Summit

There are a number of improbable circumstances which have combined to bring North Korea and the US together for their meeting in Singapore.

US-South Korea Relations

Primarily, the political dynamic of the South Korea-US relationship has changed over the past few years. Presidents Moon and Trump, who both rose to their respective premierships in 2017, offer a different political makeup to Presidents Obama and Park. Obama, who displayed hawkish and dovish tendencies in foreign policy, was largely disengaged from the Korean issue during his tenure, despite his proposed ‘pivot to Asia’. He largely relied on sanctions to curtail Kim’s actions. In comparison, President Trump has been controversial and unconventional in his discussion of relations on the Korean Peninsula. Trump (and his team) has generally displayed aggressive, hawkish positions against Pyongyang (and Beijing). Whilst also largely relying on sanctions, up to this point, these have been more arduous and more rigorously enforced; his administration has also sought to exert greater pressure on Beijing.

President Park, Moon’s predecessor, took a similar, if more conventionally hawkish position to Trump against South Korea’s northern neighbour. Amongst other actions, she welcomed in the THAAD missile defence system, angering North Korea and China (a vital trading partner for South Korea). Under her premiership, inter-Korea relations were at the lowest point they have been in years, with the Kaesong Industrial Zone, a joint North-South enterprise suspending operations in 2016, proving one such example of the toxic relationship. President Moon represents the complete antithesis to Park, offering more conciliatory and dovish positions towards North Korea, publicly questioning the benefits of THAAD. He has struck a delicate position between Pyongyang and Washington, understanding that both relationships are vital for South Korea’s security. Moon has expended much political capital, at home and abroad, in order to follow the ‘Sunshine Policy’ of rapprochement with North Korea as outlined by his mentor, former-President Roh Moo-hyun. South Korea’s president also ensured that the Singapore summit will take place, steering Pyongyang-Washington relations back on track after they appeared to have derailed in May 2018. With Moon and Trump at their respective helms, a difficult but important relationship has emerged where Trump can effectively play ‘bad cop’ to Moon’s ‘good cop’. This reversal of roles appears more effective than the relatively “good” US, and “bad” Korea during the Obama/Park era. The Seoul-Washington alliance has been able to provide the carrots and sticks necessary to get North Korea to the negotiating table.

North Korea

Due to the secretive nature of North Korea, it is particularly difficult to assess what has drawn them to the negotiating table. There are arguments to suggest that Pyongyang has suffered under the economic cost of sanctions and fears of US military action have heightened with President Trump in the White House. Furthermore, North Korea observers have suggested that the nuclear site under Mount Mantap at Punggye-ri has collapsed (before North Korea reportedly destroyed it). Indeed, soon after this news was announced in April 2018, Kim announced that his country would be suspending its nuclear programme. The argument goes that Pyongyang has been forced into giving up its nuclear weaponry ambition in order ensure regime survival and improve its economic standing. These last two issues are intertwined. The economic sanctions which have been placed on North Korea over the past 12 to 18 months are more likely to have disproportionately affected the country’s populous rather than the elites. The elites, and the Kim dynasty, in particular, live in constant fear that the regime could crumble, costing them their privileged positions, and most likely their lives. Improving the economic welfare of the majority of people is likely essential to reduce the potential for a civil uprising.

Losing his position is highly likely to be the greatest threat perceived by Kim. This perception may explain a leadership shake-up which has occurred only weeks before the summit. Kim Jong-gak, the sole survivor of six generals who carried the coffin of Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s father), was recently removed from the post of director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army. His replacement is seen to be more malleable and more supportive of the Supreme Leader. He has also reportedly removed Pak Yong-sik as defence minister and Ri Myong-su as chief of staff of the Korean People’s Army, both members of the country’s old guard. The Supreme Leader rarely leaves the country, with the trip to Singapore the furthest away he has taken while leader (he has otherwise only travelled to China during this time). Kim undoubtedly fears an uprising while he is away, either a popular one or a military coup d’état, meaning his temporary replacement needs to be someone he controls and who owes his patronage to the Supreme Leader. Some commentators have suggested that the older generation of generals may see the summit and everything which has come before it as the regime compromising too much with Trump and the US.

Some commentators have suggested that Kim comes into the summit from a position of strength and not weakness. The nuclear advancements which the country has made during his short tenure mean that there is enough concern in the US for Kim to be able to extract significant concessions from his adversary. In this scenario, North Korea is unlikely to completely denuclearise or give up its missile testing programme.


The role of China in getting North Korea to the table can also not be understated. President Xi exhibits similar traits to President Trump in that both revel in international prestige. Notably, Trump has seemed to appreciate having his ego stroked by France’s President Macron, while Xi has been key to be seen as a great statesman and have China viewed not as a pariah in international affairs. If China can be seen to be controlling Pyongyang’s excesses, then it looks like a responsible world power and gains prestige in the eyes of the world. This is important to the Chinese populous after they spent decades as a relatively unimportant global actor. This has largely been achieved through China’s growing importance in international affairs which has restored much national pride and also limits the potential for significant unrest at home, allowing Xi to increase his power (as he has done). More than ever before, China has instituted diplomatic, economic, and financial sanctions on Pyongyang, notably surrounding the import of coal, North Korea’s primary export.

China, as the world’s second-greatest power, is somewhat concerned by US influence and role in the Asia-Pacific. China is under no illusion that policymakers in Washington DC view Beijing as a threat to the US’ role as the world’s dominant superpower. Any escalation between North Korea and the US is not welcomed in Beijing. However, the complete cessation easing of tensions may also fail to benefit them. It seems likely that Beijing, which Kim Jong-un visited in the lead up to this summit, has pushed Kim into negotiations with the US. Chinese officials are incredibly concerned by the installation of THAAD in South Korea and see the missile defence system as an offensive, not a defensive measure. They will undoubtedly be hoping that nuclear disarmament from North Korea and some form of a deal with the US will lead to a US military pullback from the Korean Peninsula. This may come in the form of the withdrawal of THAAD (which seems unlikely at this juncture) or the withdrawal of at least some of the 27,000 to 33,000 US troops which are stationed in South Korea at any one time. China will also be hoping that a denuclearisation deal will lead to further cracks in the East Asia alliance system which has been forming in recent years to surround China. Japan has been left somewhat in the cold by this summit and any form of a deal would allow South Korea more freedom to pull away from the US, its key sponsor. Moreover, one of Donald Trump’s first acts as President was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership which was originally orchestrated as an attempt to manage the rise of China. Any form of a deal is also likely to lead the US to lose focus on the region to a certain extent. These factors would certainly improve the Chinese security position.

China would have also been fearing the end of the Kim dynasty or conflict in North Korea. They would have feared being drawn into any war with the US on the Peninsula as they are militarily weaker. Additionally, any conflict in North Korea would have caused a refugee crisis on the Korea-China border (Beijing had already begun preparing for this eventuality). While China may be reluctant to admit this, they do not want to see an end to the current regime in Pyongyang, only for it to be moderated. Like the US, Beijing probably sees the issue of North Korea as an important bargaining chip. When dealing with world powers, China would much prefer to discuss relations on the Korean Peninsula than issues involving the South China Sea, Tibet, or Taiwan, which it views as part of its sovereign territory. In the South China Sea, for example, China has accelerated construction on tiny islands present in the sea. The US’ attention has been diverted away from this issue, an issue highlighted by President Trump in the election campaign, towards North Korea. Also, the current regime in Pyongyang ensures the country serves as a useful buffer zone against the United States. If North and South Korea were to reunify, or the regime was to fall, then US troops could become a regular fixture on the Sino-Korea border; the current political situation ensures that this is not a potential eventuality. The way relations were developing on the Peninsula prior to 2018, made the end of the regime or conflict a real possibility, China is likely to have pushed Kim into the summit, with certain caveats and preconditions.

Is a deal really possible?

The simple answer to the above question is yes, but many rightly remain sceptical. A deal is certainly possible, though it will not come after a singular summit. It is of note that the outlines of any potential agreement have probably already been drawn up by aides and through the visits of US Secretary of State (and former-CIA chief) Mike Pompeo to North Korea and the recent visit of the North Korean spy chief to the White House. Democrats in the US Congress have already promised to scupper any deal without a human rights dimension; it remains unclear what the full remit of the talks will cover. Broader talks ensure more potential for compromise (and disagreement, potentially scuppering the whole deal), a narrower agenda means that there are fewer areas for agreement or common ground also a potential threat to the success of talks.

The denuclearisation of North Korea is likely to take years to agree upon, let alone be fully implemented. The US administration, desperate for a win due to domestic pressure, is seeking an all-encompassing deal to denuclearise the Peninsula.  Kim is looking for something more gradual, which would allow him to save face and maintain influence with the upper echelons of North Korea’s political establishment. In short, Kim cannot offer the world without getting something significant in return. The US has promised no sanctions relief without North Korea ending its nuclear ambitions. However, if a deal can be struck whereby the sanctions remain but North Korea agrees to concessions and receives food aid from the US and its allies, this should be considered as a win and a vital first step.

Scepticism remains surrounding this summit due to the unpreparedness of the US. The State Department is dangerously understaffed. Key positions have not been filled since Trump came to office including dozens of assistant secretaries, undersecretaries, and ambassadors, notably to South Korea, where there has been no US ambassador since January 2017. President Trump is also on his second Secretary of State, with Rex Tillerson lasting a little over a year in the role. Many international treaties and negotiations occur due to relationships. The resources of the State Department are currently spread thin and this, combined with the closed-off nature of North Korea, will make it difficult for functionaries (lower level diplomats/bureaucrats) to form the right kind of interpersonal relationships to ensure that the summit is the success which all are hoping for. The most likely positive outcome from the summit is progress in the forming of these important mid-level relationships through the establishment of working groups to tackle specific issues.

Failure: Meaning and Impact

Failure at the summit is a very real potential; the primary dividing points between the US and North Korea have remained consistent over the past 20-30 years. Pyongyang, and Kim personally, fear what happened in Iraq and Libya, where leaders gave up their nuclear programmes and were soon removed from power by invasions or uprisings. The global community should dread the instability which would ensue should such a fate befall North Korea. Kim will also fear the more recent example of Iran. Tehran, according to all experts, was adhering to the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal) before the US, under President Trump, reneged from its side. Failure at the summit would lead to louder voices from hawks in the US for military conflict. Such individuals would argue that because diplomacy had failed, the US was left with only one option – attack. Such an action would likely lead to a regional and then global war.

Domestically, failure at the summit is likely to impact the positions of both Presidents Trump and Moon. As noted, Moon has expended political capital and stated his reputation on constructing a more conciliatory relationship with North Korea; failure of his neo-Sunshine Policy is likely to lead to a dip in his poll numbers and may affect his ability to govern for the remainder of his term. For President Trump, this may impact his chances of success in the November 2018 mid-term elections. Trump and his Republican party have had few popular accomplishments since they took over the presidency, House, and Senate after the 2016 elections. Trump needs a win. An unlikely success with North Korea would go some way to improve his standing with voters; failure may contribute to a flip of the legislative branch of government after this year’s vote




Travellers are advised to expect high levels of disruption across Singapore before and during this summit. Traffic and security restrictions will be in place from 10 June until 14 June for Sentosa Island and the neighbourhoods of Tanglin, Newton, and Orchard, where the respective dignitaries are expected to stay. Expect road closures, checkpoints, deployment of armed security personnel, and identity checks. Travellers should adhere to all official instruction as Singapore police have been given greater powers to cover this summit and may arbitrarily arrest those who do not immediately follow instructions. Airspace and airplane landing restrictions are also in place for Singapore between 11 and 13 June. Expect delays and disruption to all flights to and from Singapore Changi International Airport. Travel delays should also be expected across Singapore for the 10-14 June period, notably at transport hubs. Allow extra time for travel and plot routes avoiding impacted areas.

South Korea

The summit is also expected to cause disruption in South Korea due to protests both in favour of and against a peace deal. Expect disruption in downtown Seoul, particularly outside the US Embassy. There is the potential for violent clashes between those of opposing views, though this is not considered a significant risk. Those in South Korea should follow local media, coverage of the summit, and make alternative travel arrangements to avoid impacted areas. Avoid sites of unrest as clashes may occur. Those in South Korea should always have plans in place, including for evacuations, in case relations between North and South Korea deteriorate significantly. It is important to note that North Korea, with or without its nuclear programme, has the necessary military firepower to cause significant damage to South Korea.

Solace Global advises clients of the difficulties of visiting North Korea. Due to control of the state, travelling with personal security is not possible. Travellers are usually required to travel with a state-recognised tour group, with state handlers. Travellers are also advised of the strict laws and punishments in the country. On 16 March 2016, a US national was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for committing crimes against the state; he was accused of attempting to steal a political slogan from the staff quarters of a tourist hotel. On 06 May 2017, an American citizen was arrested for unspecific ‘hostile acts’. This arrest came only three days after another US citizen was arrested for ‘acts of hostility aimed to overturn’ the country. Travellers should