JUN 12, 2018 — Two days after arriving in Singapore, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un shook hands on Tuesday with US President Donald Trump at the start of their momentous US-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Singapore’s Sentosa island — both leaders made history as the world waits for the their meet that could determine historic peace or raise the specter of a growing nuclear threat.
Trump had said the two would have a “great discussion” and Kim saying they had overcome “obstacles” to get to this point.
The North Korean leader had landed at Singapore’s Changi Airport on Sunday on an Air China 747 airplane provided by Beijing. One analyst said it reflected a “tug of war” behind the scenes between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump.
As the world awaits whether Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump will agree on denuclearization or an end to the Korean War at Tuesday’s summit, Kim’s use of a Chinese aircraft and the route he took to Singapore has provoked interest among China watchers.
Air China’s Boeing 747s are used to carry Chinese leaders. Perhaps embarrassed by the need to have to borrow a Chinese plane, Kim avoided media exposure when he landed in Singapore and left in a long motorcade without much fanfare.
Arriving slightly later in Singapore was North Korea’s official government aircraft, a Ilyushin-62M jet, jokingly referred to as “Air Force Un,” which will act as a backup plane.
Xi had feared a situation where Kim would go “all in” with Trump, refusing any help from China. Such a move could shift the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula and squeeze China’s sphere of influence.
There had been worrying indications for Beijing earlier. “We could absolutely sign an agreement,” Trump said on Thursday when asked about formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War during his meeting with Kim.
The U.S. president made his remarks just after meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Washington, D.C. “We’re talking about it with them, we’re talking about it with a lot of other people,” he said.
On Sunday evening, Trump arrived at Singapore’s Paya Lebar Air Base for the Tuesday summit with Kim.
Over the past several days, the Chinese media has been carrying opinion pieces noting that any declaration ending the Korean War would be meaningless without the approval of one of its central participants, China. This suggested that Beijing was worried that Trump and Kim alone would conclude such a deal.
To avoid being left out, China played on Kim’s fears about his safety as he headed to Singapore. Kim’s plane is an old Soviet-era aircraft, which has raised questions whether it could safely make the long trip to Singapore.
If China could ensure Kim’s security by having him fly over Chinese airspace, perhaps escorted by Chinese fighters, or let Kim borrow a Chinese government aircraft, it would show that China remained a power behind North Korea.
While Kim’s return itinerary has not been announced, having Kim travel in an Air China plane would make it easier for him to stop in Beijing on his way back to “report” about his discussions with Trump. If Trump were to leave the discussions early, as he has threatened to do, it would provide Kim with a safe passage back to his country. “Within the first minute I’ll know,” whether Kim is serious about a deal, Trump said when he left Canada after attending the contentious Group of Seven summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, clearly not interested in the multinational dialogue.
If Kim had rejected China’s offer of transport, things might have been trickier for Beijing. Kim could have asked that U.S. fighters stationed in South Korea, Japan or Guam to escort his plane for security. Such a flight would certainly have avoided flying over mainland China.
Furthermore, it would have been troubling if that entourage had flown over the South China Sea, much of which China claims as theirs.
So it was a small victory for Beijing when Kim chose to turn to Beijing. He must surely have reservations about being in Xi’s debt, but concerns over personal security trumped any such concerns.
For now, Xi has succeeded in blocking Kim from aligning himself too closely to Trump. But the tug of war between the U.S. and China will continue. The Korean Peninsula has been a battleground for great power rivalry for more than a century, with China and Russia competing with Japan and the U.S. Those tensions, for example, led to the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and later the Korean War.
Kim is therefore busy weighing his options, careful not to tip the balance too far in anyone’s favor, while extracting the most concessions for Pyongyang.
North Korea will continue to dominate the diplomatic agenda after the historic Singapore summit is over. Trump planned to fly out on Tuesday evening with stop in Guam (where the US has a military base) and Hawaii on his way back to Washington.
He told reporters he thinks he will know almost immediately whether a deal can be made, saying: “I will know, just my touch, my feel. That’s what I do.”
With Kim possibly visiting the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, on top of a visit to Vladivostok in Russia, the regional powers of the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia will all be jostling to wield influence.
(Based on reports by AP, Reuters and the Nikkei Asian Review)