Singapore was chosen as the venue for the historic summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump for many practical reasons, including comparative proximity to the DPRK vis-a-vis the preferred European destinations of US peace conference organisers but also because Singapore could guarantee the safety of both leaders. Moreover, Singapore’s neutral geopolitical position as a country that does commerce with all and engages in antagonism with none (in spite of occasional lingering disputes with Malaysia), meant that it was a preferable venue to China, Russia, South Korea or Japan given the context of the summit’s agenda.
But beyond this, the symbolism of Singapore as the location of the summit has far reaching implications for the future of a post-nuclear/post-sanctions DPRK. Any nation’s official media gives one a great insight into how a nation sees itself. Singapore’s press regulations were in fact developed along this line of thinking. Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew had many sizeable problems to solve when his nation ultimately broke away from Malaysia to become an independent republic in 1965. Lee was tasked with turning an underdeveloped island with few valuable natural resources but plenty of racial tensions into a thriving first world powerhouse where prosperity and social harmony replaced poverty and discord.
Lee was committed to a press where the flow of information was free but where potential provocations were reduced to a minimum. Because of this, Lee restricted the sales of foreign newspapers reporting on Singapore but encouraged Singaporeans to read foreign press reports from various nations to see what Singapore’s partners and potential rivals thought about themselves.
Because of this, it has become invaluable to study both what the DPRK and US official press agencies had to say about the summit. While the content of both American and DPRK reflections on the meeting between the world leaders has been previously addressed in Eurasia Future, an extended 45 minute news report from the DPRK about the prelude, content and aftermath of the summit requires further inspection.
The first section of the DPRK’s official televised report looked as much like a commercial for tourism and investment in Singapore as it was a chance for the DPRK to show its people the warm reception that Kim Jong-un received during his first foreign trip outside of China (South Korea shall not be classed as foreign given this context).
Sweeping shots of Kim walking and driving through Singapore’s ultra-modern streets while gazing at the vast expanses of Singapore’s superb modern architecture had a clear double meaning. While the DPRK has no reason to advertise the self-evident prosperity and cleanliness of Singapore (Pyongyang is an equally clean city though certainly less ornate), it did have a reason to advertise what a possible future could look like for a post-sanctions DPRK.
Luckily for Kim Jong-un, questions about how to develop the DPRK economy in future years will not be shaped by the complex racial issues of multicultural Singapore as Korea is among the most ethnically homogeneous places on earth. But in terms of working hard to transform an economy, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore success story is instructive for any Asian leader looking to achieve maximum development in the shortest possible period of time.
In many ways, the DPRK has a sizeable head start over Singapore in the 1960s. The DPRK is a deeply civilised, highly educated society whose major cities are clean, lined with modern (though often basic) buildings, large streets and highways and a functioning public transport infrastructure. Under Kim Jong-un, efforts to modernise and brighten new corridors of Pyongyang have taken place and international tourists who have seen the new construction have generally been impressed, not least because of the artificially low expectations many have regarding the DPRK.
That being said, when measured against the standards of South Korea, China, Japan or Singapore, the DPRK has a great deal of modernisation to conduct in the capital, let alone in less developed provincial cities and towns. While Lee Kuan Yew is thought of as an arch capitalist, in reality, Singapore’s economy was a hybrid economy that was indelibly shaped by a harmonious but intense relationship between government and the private sector. Singapore’s economic system while often classed by financial libertarians as the freest in the world, is paradoxically one regulated so as to insure that the wealth generated in Singapore pours into Singapore’s constant development. Lee Kuan Yew was never one to rest on his laurels and draw a line under development. Instead, he pursued a policy of constant re-development which continues to shape Sinagpore’s socio-entrepreneurial spirit to this day. Lee’s ability to think globally allowed Singapore to flourish even at a time when Japan began to stagnate. Lee in fact warned that while Japan’s economy was strong, lack of global thinking ultimately held back Japan’s potential.
One of the key elements of the win-win model of Asian economic cooperation and development is that the one size fits all methodology for the neo-liberal west is insufficient to address the national characteristics of any given Asian country. Because of this, Kim Jong-un has no obligation to follow the Singapore model in the way a photocopier replicates a document, but instead Kim could realistically aim to attract the kinds of investment that allowed for Singapore to transform from a swampland into a first world urban oasis within a short span of time.
Far from presenting Kim’s visit in a chauvinistic manner, the DPRK photographers and editors clearly showed Kim’s sense of awe, satisfaction and joy at touring Singapore. The message could not be clearer – Kim’s journey was not about humbling the DPRK before its traditional US adversary. Instead, the trip was about embarking on the first steps towards a new era in the development of the DPRK, for the clear benefit of the Korean people.
Thus, when Kim looked Trump in the eye, he looked at a negotiating partner who can ideally pave the way for a more open future for his country. Yet when Kim gazed at the beauty of Singapore, he was looking into the future – the kind of future the young leader is more than capable of creating for his people if given the right geopolitical circumstance.
In this sense, just as Lee Kuan Yew’s vision for a modern Asia helped to influence Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping’s outlook on the economic future of his country, so too has Lee’s success clearly rubbed off on Kim Jong-un.