16 July 2019
Kim Jong-un shakes hands with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on June 10 after the North Korean leader arrived in the city-state for a summit with US President Donald Trump. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
Kim Jong-un shakes hands with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on June 10 after the North Korean leader arrived in the city-state for a summit with US President Donald Trump. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

The little-known friendship between Singapore and N Korea

According to sources from diplomatic circles, Vietnam had worked aggressively in a bid to persuade the US and North Korea to hold their leaders’ summit on Vietnamese soil, only to get turned down by Washington.

Vietnam was keen to host the historic summit, which was eventually held in Singapore on June 12, as it felt the initiative can help boost its status within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Now, as far as Singapore is concerned, its international status has undoubtedly been enhanced substantially after the Trump-Kim summit.

As a matter of fact, there were actually quite a few other countries which were intensely interested in hosting the summit.

But even so, Singapore was eventually chosen, not least because of its relatively neutral status, its proximity to North Korea, and its solid experience in hosting high-profile international conferences.

However, what is perhaps little-known is that there is actually another more fundamental reason why the city-state was finally picked as the venue for the historic summit — its low-profile yet close relations with Pyongyang that date back to more than 40 years.

Even though North Korea has remained one of the world’s most isolated countries, it has maintained pretty good relations with the ASEAN over the years, and has established consulates in its member states except for the Philippines and Brunei, both of which are generally regarded as steadfast allies of the US.

In fact the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, in Malaysia can, to a significant extent, be attributed to the fact that North Korean nationals are given visa waiver by Kuala Lumpur, which enables North Korean foreign workers (or other North Koreans posing as workers) to enter the country and move around freely.

In 1975, Singapore established formal diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, long before the city-state did so with Beijing.

And despite the fact that mutual visits between Singaporean and North Korean government officials weren’t that frequent over the years, bilateral interactions and exchanges have often been carried out in a rather high-level fashion.

For example, in 2008, then Singaporean foreign minister George Yong-Boon Yeo paid an official visit to Pyongyang.

Later, in 2012 and 2014, Kim Yong-nam, president of the Supreme People’s Assembly and the nominal head of state of North Korea, and the then North Korean foreign minister Ri Su-yong officially visited Singapore.

When Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew died in 2015, Pak Pong-ju, the then premier of North Korea, sent his country’s condolence message to Singapore, referring to Lee as the “old friend of the North Korean people”.

Just as Beijing was, at one point, eagerly seeking dialogue with Taipei through Singapore, Pyongyang also in the past relied on the city-state as an intermediary between the north and the south.

Given that background, it is not surprising that Singapore was favored by both Washington and Pyongyang as venue for the Trump-Kim summit.

Meanwhile, like Malaysia, Singapore also allows North Korean nationals visa-free treatment, one among the only two ASEAN member states which do so.

Apart from official dialogue, civilian exchanges on trade between Singapore and North Korea are actually more frequent and common than most people might think.

The fact is, ever since the two countries established diplomatic ties, Singapore has remained one of North Korea’s most important trading partners.

In 2010, Singapore was ranked 10th on Pyongyang’s list of foreign trade partners, and that ranking jumped two places to No.8 in 2016.

In 2008, the Singapore Business Federation, the country’s leading chamber of commerce, concluded a memorandum of understanding with its North Korean counterpart, under which they agreed to enhance mutual exchanges of information and explore new frontiers in which both of them were interested.

During that same year, Lee Ryong-nam, the then Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy of North Korea, visited Singapore and attended a trade symposium.

Apart from bilateral cooperation on government levels, the Choson Exchange, a Singaporean non-governmental organization, has also been playing a key part in facilitating “civilian exchanges” between the two countries since 2010 by providing training programs for North Koreans on finance, trade and technologies.

During his recent stay in Singapore, Kim Jong-un took the island nation by storm when he went on a night-time stroll around the city and vowed to “learn from Singapore”.

Kim may have really have meant what he said, because there is indeed quite a lot Pyongyang can learn from the “Singapore model”.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 19

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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