North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump flew to this bustling Southeast Asian island nation Sunday, touching down hours apart for a historic and improbable summit aimed at resolving a nuclear impasse and ending seven decades of official hostility.
Adding to the high-stakes drama, Trump is expected to hold his initial meeting with Kim face to face Tuesday with only interpreters in the room, leaving top advisors to wait outside, a senior administration official said.
Trump’s advisors expect a brief encounter but do not know how long the president, who likes to improvise, will stay alone with Kim, keeping out Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other key administration figures.
That portion of the summit could be crucial, however, as Trump said Saturday that he believes he will know within the first minute whether Kim is seriously considering eliminating his nuclear arsenal and infrastructure, as the U.S. demands.
Kim landed about 3:30 p.m. aboard a Chinese 747 and appeared relaxed in the swarm of cameras and glad-handing Singapore government officials on the tarmac. He smiled broadly in his pinstriped Mao-style suit.
“The entire world is watching this historic summit,” Kim later told Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, through an interpreter. He added that he expects the meeting “will be very successful.”
Trump arrived five hours later in the steamy, tropical night. He waved from the stairs of Air Force One, was warmly greeted by Singapore’s foreign minister and then disappeared into his limousine.
In a Twitter post during the flight, Trump expressed optimism, saying he has “a feeling that this one-time opportunity will not be wasted.”
It was another once-unthinkable scene. Trump had long derided Kim and traded insults with him. Now he is poised to become the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader.
For Kim, the transformation is even more remarkable. The longtime pariah on the global stage basked in the kind of attention — and acceptance — that his family has sought for three generations.
Onlookers clamored to catch a glimpse or snap a cellphone picture of Kim in his black Mercedes-Benz limousine as his 20-vehicle motorcade sped from Changi Airport to a protected area at the luxury St. Regis Singapore hotel where he is staying.
Later, Singapore’s prime minister ushered Kim around the palace office to shake hands with officials, pose for pictures and chat from regal cream-colored chairs — all broadcast live to the world from a government Facebook account.
Trump was accompanied by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and national security advisor John Bolton. Pompeo, who planned to brief regional allies after the summit, had his own plane.
The White House indicated that Trump had crammed on the long journey, apparently seeking to dispel multiple reports that Trump has shrugged off detailed briefings on North Korea and plans to wing his first bid at nuclear diplomacy.
“During the flight, the president spent time meeting with his staff, reading materials and preparing for his meetings in Singapore,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
His public schedule Monday was light. He planned to meet with Lee at noon and then visit with U.S. Embassy staff who had scrambled to help arrange the visit. Sung Kim, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea now posted to the Philippines, was scheduled to lead a U.S. delegation for a 10 a.m. working group session with a North Korean team at the Ritz-Carlton hotel.
The hopeful turn toward diplomacy with Kim came directly after Trump upended the normally cordial gathering of close allies at the annual Group of 7 conference — exchanging angry words with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after he left early and refusing to sign a pro forma joint statement.
Not only was Trump uninterested in mending fences over the trade dispute with America’s closest traditional allies, but he was also eager to get to the unprecedented talks with Kim.
The trail of excitement following Kim, who has long sought global legitimacy, puts added pressure on Trump to win something more than good feelings from the summit, even if the gains are not immediate.
Global anticipation for Tuesday’s summit between the most unconventional American president in modern times and an autocrat who is perhaps the world’s most isolated leader has grown exponentially since the summit was put together at a lightning pace, amid persistent uncertainty, over the last few weeks.
Singapore, famed for its litter-free streets, lush gardens and strict regulations, raced to spruce up. The government asked that skyscrapers remain lighted at night to present a more dazzling skyline, and bouquets of tropical flowers decorated the 60 old cannons at Ft. Siloso, near where the two leaders will meet on Sentosa Island, in honor of the summit.
About 2,500 members of the media have registered, the largest contingent ever hosted in Singapore, according to the local Straits Times. That’s on par with the most recent Olympics held in South Korea, an event that took years to plan and lasted for weeks.
Network crews have sent their anchors and star reporters, all hoping to capture a moment in history that could reset Asian geopolitics and security after decades of failed attempts to restrain North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
The trip itself is also monumental for Kim, the third member of his family to rule, on a personal level.
The flight was only his second out of North Korea since he assumed power in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Tracking radars showed that the Air China flight stayed far inland, in Chinese airspace.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has met Kim Jong Un twice since March, normally flies aboard the huge plane, media reports here said. The 747 clearly was far grander and more modern than the aging Russian aircraft that Kim normally uses. Two other aircraft also flew here from Pyongyang, ferrying Kim’s entourage and supplies.
The Kim government, which rules by repression and has jailed hundreds of thousands of its citizens, is intensely worried about assassination and coup attempts, making Kim especially anxious when he leaves his rigidly controlled nation.
Trump has embraced the hype, telling reporters on Saturday that he’s on a “mission of peace” and that “we’re going to be carrying the hearts of millions of people” into the negotiations.
Yet he has acknowledged that even the most successful one-day summit is unlikely to achieve his ambition of persuading Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal, at least anytime soon.
His early talk of immediate celebrations and Nobel Peace Prize nominations has cooled as he has acknowledged the initial meeting is more likely to determine whether more fulsome negotiations can be set in motion.
Indeed, Trump said Saturday in Canada that he would decide how to handle Kim on the “spur of the moment” after they lay eyes on each other in the Capella Singapore hotel, the summit site. “This is a leader who really is an unknown personality,” he said.
As a result, pageantry, symbolism and body language are expected to play a central role.
The stakes are sobering given North Korea’s cache of nuclear and biological weapons and its universally condemned human rights record. But normally staid Singapore quickly embraced some of the quirky atmospherics.
Dennis Rodman, the eccentric former NBA player who calls Kim a friend, announced plans to attend while promoting a digital currency for the cannabis industry. One bar offered a special “Bromance” cocktail; at least one street stall hawked a fragrant rice dish in honor of the summit; and cardboard fans, coffee cups and water bottles showed stylized likenesses of Trump and Kim.
Some images of the two leaders were even more lifelike.
At a crowded downtown shopping mall here, dozens of people waited in line to take photos and shake hands with Trump and Kim impersonators — for $11 a shake.
Singapore authorities were not amused. The Hong Kong-based Kim impersonator, Lee Howard Ho Wun, wrote in a Facebook post that he was questioned at the airport for two hours when he arrived Friday.
Any public gatherings without a police permit are illegal in Singapore — making it ideal for a high-security nuclear summit but less so for nudging Kim toward open democracy.
Authorities have designated areas around the summit site and the hotels where the two leaders are staying as “special event areas,” where no bullhorns or large flags or banners are allowed.
Camera crews and reporters clustered around the St. Regis, Kim’s quarters, as well as at the Shangri-La, where Trump was staying. Traffic barriers and police checkpoints helped cordon off nearby streets.
When Kim walked through the St. Regis lobby, curious onlookers, including the hotel chef and a pair of teenage girls, craned their necks for a peek past the unsmiling bodyguards and police. Kim’s security detail demanded to see one gawker’s cellphone photos and ordered him to delete photos of Kim.