Facilitator: US President Donald Trump meets Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the city-state leader’s official residence in Singapore on Monday, ahead of the summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un on Tuesday. Picture: REUTERS
Facilitator: US President Donald Trump meets Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the city-state leader’s official residence in Singapore on Monday, ahead of the summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un on Tuesday. Picture: REUTERS

Singapore — US President Donald Trump said on Monday his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore could “work out very nicely” as officials from both countries sought to narrow differences on how to end a nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula.

But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo injected a note of caution ahead of the first meeting of US and North Korean leaders on Tuesday, saying it remained to be seen whether Kim was sincere about his willingness to denuclearise.

Last-minute talks between the two sides were held in the city-state aimed at laying the groundwork for the summit between Trump and Kim, a meeting almost unthinkable just months ago when the two were exchanging insults and threats that raised fears of war.

But after a flurry of diplomatic overtures eased tensions, the two leaders are now headed for a history-making handshake US officials hope could eventually lead to the dismantling of a North Korean nuclear programme that threatens the US.

On the eve of the summit, Pompeo said it could provide “an unprecedented opportunity to change the trajectory of our relationship and bring peace and prosperity” to North Korea.

Verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation

However, he played down the possibility of a quick breakthrough and said the summit should set the framework for “the hard work that will follow”, insisting that North Korea had to move towards complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation. Pyongyang, though, has shown little appetite for surrendering nuclear weapons it considers vital to the survival of Kim’s dynastic rule.

Sanctions on North Korea would remain in place until that had happened, Pompeo said. “If diplomacy does not move in the right direction … those measures will increase. North Korea has previously confirmed to us its willingness to denuclearise and we are eager to see if those words prove sincere,” he said.

The White House later said discussions had moved “more quickly than expected” and Trump would leave Singapore on Tuesday night. Kim is due to leave on Tuesday afternoon.

Trump arrived in Singapore on Sunday after a blow-up over trade with other members of the Group of Seven (G-7) major industrialised nations in Canada, The escalating economic clash between Washington and some of its closest allies cast a cloud over Trump’s efforts to score a major foreign policy win in talks with North Korea.

Although gaps remain over what denuclearisation would entail, Trump sounded a positive note in a lunch meeting with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

“We’ve got a very interesting meeting … tomorrow, and I just think it’s going to work out very nicely,” Trump said.

It was a far cry from 2017 when Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” and mocked Kim as “little rocket man”. In turn, Kim denounced Trump as the “mentally deranged US dotard”.

Kim, who also arrived on Sunday, remained ensconced in the guarded St Regis Hotel.

Some people were grumbling in the wealthy city-state because of traffic jams and the cost of hosting two leaders with huge security needs. Lee said the summit would cost Singapore about $15m, more than half of which would go on security.

“Thanks PM Lee for spending $20m of taxpayers’ money, which can … help a lot of needy families in Singapore to survive,” posted one Facebook user.

'Worthwhile cost'

Lee said the cost was worthwhile. “It is our contribution to an international endeavour which is in our profound interest,” he said on Sunday.

Trump and Kim are staying in separate hotels in the famous Orchard Road area of Singapore, dotted with high-rise luxury flats, offices and glittering shopping malls.

Traffic was held up in the steamy midday sun and scores of bystanders were penned in by police when Trump went to meet Lee. Similar scenes were seen on Sunday when Kim and went to meet Lee. Their hotels are cordoned off by security.

Commenting for the first time on the summit, North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency said the two sides would exchange “wide-ranging and profound views” to re-set relations. It heralded the summit as part of a “changed era”.

It said discussions would focus on “the issue of building a permanent and durable peace-keeping mechanism on the Korean peninsula, the issue of realising the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and other issues of mutual concern”.

In the lead up to the summit, North Korea rejected any unilateral nuclear disarmament, and KCNA’s reference to denuclearisation of the peninsula has historically meant that Pyongyang wants the US to remove its “nuclear umbrella” protecting South Korea and Japan.

Many experts on North Korea, one of the world’s most  unpredictable countries, remain sceptical Kim will ever completely abandon nuclear weapons.

A Trump administration official said the US side was entering the talks with a sense of optimism and an equal dose of scepticism.

The official said Kim and Trump would hold a one-on-one meeting on Tuesday that could last up to two hours.