North Korea

Once it was a pirate-filled ‘island behind the dead’ – now it looks set to host the Kim-Trump summit

Sentosa was once known as ‘the island behind the dead’ and was infested with buccaneers; now it looks set to host June’s Trump-Kim summit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 June, 2018, 7:07am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 June, 2018, 12:04pm

Of all Singapore’s big hotels, only one shows all its rooms and restaurants are blocked out for the week surrounding June 12, when US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are due to meet in the city.

The booking crunch at the Capella, which sits in the middle of 30 acres of gardens and rainforest on the resort island of Sentosa, just south of the city, is among a handful of overt signs that Singapore is preparing for one of the most controversial summits since the end of the cold war.

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Kim Chang-son, director of North Korea’s state affairs commission secretariat, and Joe Hagin, a deputy White House chief of staff, met at the hotel after arriving in the city state in late May to work out security and logistics measures.

Reporters are banned from entering the building, whose 112 rooms and villas were designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster.

Trump and Kim are like two people arranging a rendezvous on Tinder … they have to meet at some secret location
Eileen Chen, Sentosa resident

A curving wood and glass structure wraps around restored colonial buildings that once included an officers’ mess for Britain’s Royal Artillery. The regimental silver is rumoured to have been buried under the lawn before Japanese troops captured Singapore in 1942.

Back in the city, those reporters are beginning to pour in. Hundreds have already arrived and more than 5,000 have applied for registration with the Singapore government.

Trump’s on-again, off-again approach (the latest is the summit is on) is a logistical headache, even for a small island with established security, well-trained soldiers and police, and a history of hosting leaders in sometimes tricky circumstances.

There are questions on where each leader will stay, whether the summit is in a different location, how to manage the media hordes and keep curious locals at bay.

Some residents are bemused by it all.

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“Trump and Kim are like two people arranging a rendezvous on Tinder,” said Eileen Chen, a local stockbroker who said she might head over to the summit location once it’s announced, to try to get a glimpse of Kim.

“It’s like one person says ‘let’s meet’ and another person says ‘let’s see.’ And then they have to meet at some secret location.”

For local businesses, the influx of visitors comes during a time of peak business anyway.

A few places are hoping to capitalise on the event, with Escobar mixing drinks named after the leaders – a blue bourbon-based cocktail for Trump and a red soju-based one for Kim.

But most watering holes were already preparing to welcome big local crowds for the Fifa soccer World Cup, and the malls of Singapore’s Orchard Road shopping district are readying for the two-month annual Great Singapore Sale.

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Meanwhile, the nation’s armed forces have been told to stand by, with US-built Apache helicopters and F-16 fighters ready to patrol the skies over the summit, according to an official with knowledge of the preparations.

Singapore is no slouch when it comes to hosting major events. The first summit between Chinese and Taiwanese leaders was held in 2015 at the Shangri-La hotel.

Just days ago, the hotel welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and global defence chiefs – including US Secretary of defence James Mattis – for an annual security gathering.

As chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Singapore will potentially host Trump at a summit later this year.

Still, this would be the farthest Kim has travelled since he took power in 2011. His father barely made overseas trips, and only by train, fearing he might be a target for assassination. Those anxieties are not unfounded.

A special operations unit of South Korea’s Army Special Warfare Command was tasked as recently as late last year with killing Kim if necessary.

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The security risks from the summit work both ways. Kim spent the early years of his rule consolidating power by eliminating opponents.

His estranged half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who once lived in Singapore, was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur’s airport in neighbouring Malaysia last year with VX nerve agent.

Singapore will pick up the security bill for the summit, with Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen telling reporters on the weekend that “it’s a cost we’re willing to bear to play a small part.”

There is though the question of who might be left with the hotel tab for Kim and his entourage.

Aside from the Capella, other big hotels rumoured to be in the mix are the Shangri-La and high-end establishments in the city centre and near Orchard Road such as the Fullerton and St Regis.

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Hagin and Kim Chang Son met in the Capella hotel on Sentosa. Sentosa means “peace and tranquillity” in the Malay language, a name it was given in the 1970s.

Before that, the one-time haunt of pirates was called Pulau Belakang Mati, from Malay words meaning “island behind the dead”.

These days the island is better known for a casino and Universal Studios theme park and the villas and yachts of millionaires.

And in case Kim and Trump need a little bonding time to seal the deal, Singapore’s flagship golf course is only a short drive from the Capella.

“What risks are there in Singapore hosting the Singapore summit between the US and the DPRK?,” Ng told the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum on Sunday, referring to North Korea by its initials.

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“In my mind, the greatest risk is to our hotels. Rooms have been booked, I think. And many thousands of journalists have descended on us.

“So, if for any reason, it doesn’t materialise, perhaps we may want to convene Shangri-La Dialogue next week, too.”