North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump flew into this bustling Southeast Asian island nation Sunday, touching down five hours apart for a historic and improbable nuclear summit aimed at ending seven decades of official hostility.
Adding to the drama, Trump is expected to hold his initial meeting with Kim face-to-face on Tuesday with only translators in the room, leaving top advisors to wait outside, according to a senior administration official.
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 told reporters Saturday that he believes he will assess within the first minute whether Kim is seriously considering curbing or eliminating his nuclear arsenal and infrastructure, as the U.S. demands.
Kim, who landed at mid afternoon, played the statesman, glad-handing Singapore government officials and smiling broadly in his pinstriped Mao-style suit. Arriving after dark, Trump waved from the stairs of Air Force One and disappeared into his limousine after he was greeted by Singapore’s foreign minister.
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, of a longtime pariah on the global stage basking in the kind of attention — and acceptance — his family has sought for three generations.
Onlookers clamored to catch a glimpse or a snap cellphone picture of Kim as his black Mercedes limousine in a motorcade that snaked from Changi airport to a protected area at the luxury St. Regis Singapore hotel where he is staying.
Later, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, ushered him around his office to shake hands with government officials, pose for pictures and chat from regal cream-colored chairs — all broadcast live to the world from a government Facebook account.
“The entire world is watching this historic summit,” Kim told Lee during their welcome meeting. Lee earlier had told reporters that he would gladly pay the $20 million it would cost his island nation to host the prestigious summit.
Trump planned to meet with Lee on Monday before he visits with U.S. Embassy staff who scrambled in recent weeks to help arrange the visit.
The hopeful turn toward diplomacy with Kim came directly after Trump upended the normally cordial gathering of close allies at the annual Group of Seven 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.
Worldwide 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 past 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 Fort 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 Singapore 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.
His flight was only his second overseas since he assumed power in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Kim flew on a Boeing 747 from Air China that radars showed stayed far inland, in Chinese airspace.
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.
Two additional North Korean planes were also tracked making their way from Pyongyang, thought to be carrying his entourage as well as food and other supplies for Kim.
Trump has embraced the hype, telling reporters he’s on a “mission of peace” and “we’re going to be carrying the hearts of millions of people” into the negotiations.
Yet he has conceded that even the most successful one-day summit is unlikely to achieve his ambition of convincing Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal.
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.
While the stakes are sobering — given North Korea’s cache of nuclear and biological weapons and its universally condemned human rights record — the normally staid Singapore has absorbed some of the quirky atmospherics that often accompany a major event.
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. Reporters covering the summit were given swag bags with cardboard fans, water bottles and notebooks showing stylized likenesses of Trump and Kim.
Some of the images of Trump and Kim around town were even more lifelike.
At a crowded downtown shopping mall here this week, dozens of people waited in line to take photos and get handshakes with Trump and Kim impersonators. The smiles on the two men’s faces, and the customers willing to fork over $11, hardly betrayed the grave issues at stake.
Singapore authorities, on high security alert for the event, were less than 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 event with a pair of world leaders but less so for nudging Kim toward open democracy.
Authorities here have designated areas around the summit hotel and the hotels where the two leaders are staying as “special event areas,” where no bullhorns or large flags or banners are allowed.
A swarm of camera crews and reporters were stationed around The St. Regis, Kim’s headquarters less than half a mile away from Trump’s quarters at the Shangri-La hotel. Traffic barriers were erected over the weekend, cordoning off the street in front of the hotel and a police checkpoint set up for all vehicles approaching the hotel.
Velvet ropes inside the St. Regis lobby separated Kim from curious onlookers, including the hotel chef and a pair of teenage girls, craning their necks for a peek through the layers of bodyguards and police. Kim’s security detail demanded to see one gawker’s cellphone photos and ordered him to delete photos of Kim.