BBC Asia Business Correspondent Karishma Vaswani: Thank you, Minister, for joining us for this interview. You met with both President Trump and Chairman Kim last night. What’s your sense of these two men – are they two men ready to make a deal?
Minister: Well, what we are witnessing, really, is a hangover of the Cold War, and it has been nearly 70 years. This is not the way conventional diplomacy would have been conducted, but perhaps you need two very unconventional leaders to have brought us to this stage. So, it’s based on my interactions with their staff, as well as meeting them personally up front - both are supremely confident, both are hopeful. I think at an emotional level, both of them want something significant out of this Summit. So I think let’s wait and see. We want to avoid wishful optimism. Nevertheless, a sense of realistic optimism is in the air.
BBC: You know, you say that they both want something significant out of this Summit.
Minister: Yes, that’s very clear. Very clear.
BBC: But what does that mean, because their understandings of denuclearisation appear to be vastly different? President Trump wants something right away, Chairman Kim appears to want something more phased out.
Minister: Well, we are not directly party to the substantive negotiations, so I don’t want to get out of line there. But this question of the definition of denuclearisation clearly is in the air, and whilst I can’t share all the details of our private discussions, what I would say is that both of them have indicated quite clearly that this is the first meeting, that you don’t resolve 70 years of suspicion, of war, and quite frankly of previous diplomatic failures, in one meeting. So I think both of them are also signalling to all of us to manage our expectations. It’s a huge step. It’s a positive step. It’s not the final step.
BBC: It’s not the final step, but how close are we to getting to things like the end of the Korean War, or some sign of commitment from Chairman Kim that he is serious about denuclearisation?
Minister: Well again, I would put this Summit in context. It is a necessary but not sufficient step. I would not recommend that we make declarations. But there again on Tuesday as I said, you’ve put two completely unconventional leaders, they may be able to pull rabbits out of a hat that the rest of us conventional diplomats would not have been able to do.
BBC: What’s your sense of how these two men – as you put it, supremely confident – what’s your sense of how they will negotiate with one another when they finally sit down at that table?
Minister: Well, I think President Trump has it right when he says within that first minute they will know whether they are going to hit it off, and based on that initial goodwill, hopefully openness and confidence will be able to establish a reservoir of trust. You see, the most important missing ingredient in all these seven decades is the lack of strategic trust. This is an occasion to start building that reservoir of trust. Having said that, it’s also important to analyse the roles and the stakes of the other countries party to this. If you look first of all at South Korea, and the role that its leadership under President Moon has played, it’s clear that if something positive happens, he would have been the midwife for this delivery.
Similarly, if you look at China, China has played a very significant role, perhaps less obvious, less visible, but in the way it has conducted itself in the UN Security Council, in its own private diplomacy with North Korea. The combination of cajoling and persuasion. China is also the other major player. So what is different this time is that you have got two unconventional leaders, confident enough to break traditional boundaries. And you have got South Korea and you have got China playing crucial roles. And beyond that, of course you have got Russia and have got Japan, who have also got stakes in the outcome. So, it may be that this maybe is one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments where all the stars are aligned.
BBC: But we have been here before.
BBC: We have talked about denuclearisation with Chairman Kim before. This is a man who brutally executes his people and his family members. And he has also threatened his neighbours. How do we trust him?
Minister: I am not here to cast judgement on what has or has not happened. But as I said, my sense of it is that there is a real desire for change. He said that he now wants to focus on economic development. And having had the advantage of actually visiting Pyongyang, and actually seeing how much they have been able to achieve despite the legacy of the war and the sanctions, there is no doubt that the North Koreans are a determined, proud, enterprising, disciplined people. And that is why I left with that sense, supposing they were allowed to participate as a normal country, open up to the world, access the technology through trade, there is so much that they could do. So I think that he is also working on that hope that this is a new phase, a new opportunity. So let’s suspend judgment and let’s see how this unfolds.
BBC: What do you think has brought Chairman Kim to the negotiating table? Is it President Trump’s maximum pressure policy?
Minister: I think it’s a combination of things, and frankly, my views would be purely speculative. Number one, he feels that he has achieved his military objectives. Number two, he feels it is time for economic development. Number three, President Trump has also been willing to break the taboos and boundaries of the past, and give him an opportunity to meet face-to-face as equals. Number four, the role of South Korea. Number five, the role of China. And also I would say the role of the United Nations. This has been one of those times, the United Nations expressed through the Security Council has been united, has been effective in its implementation of sanctions. So as I said, the stars are aligned but we must avoid wishful optimism. And let’s just have hope based on a realistic assessment of what could or may not happen.
BBC: Singapore has been chosen as the venue for this historic meeting. Can you give me an understanding of how that came to be?
Minister: Well the first point that I will make is that we did not put up our hand and volunteer for it. So we were informed after the fact. I think the two sides had, in a sense, assessed the range of possibilities, and decided on their own that we could be a good site for this meeting, a conducive site for this meeting. So when they approached us, how could we say no? As I said, this is the last hangover of the Cold War. You have people whose time for development is overdue. They are Asians like us, and any war or hostility in Northeast Asia will inevitably involve Southeast Asia and have an impact on us. So we had to say yes. The fact that it reflected confidence in us, in our capability to offer a safe, secure venue. The fact that it affirmed our long standing policy of neutrality and being friends with everyone who would be friends, and that it was a vote of confidence in us. I think those are the extras. But really at the end of this, if we can play a small part to further the cause of world peace, we have to do this.
BBC: Chairman Kim is notoriously paranoid about his safety. What did you have to reassure him of for him to actually be convinced of doing the Summit here?
Minister: Well we had his advance team come here, walk the grounds, check the hotels, meet us. I think over the weeks that they spent with us, they gained greater confidence that we are sort of no nonsense but efficient people. We are good for our word, we are meticulous, we pay attention to details – every smallest detail. All that I think gave them confidence that this was the right site, the right choice. Because what you want is a conducive site so that their minds are clear to focus on the substantive negotiations. And we have been able, so far anyway, to provide that confidence.
BBC: Is there anything that Singapore has done differently for this Summit with regards to security and safety for Kim Jung Un, in comparison to the other leaders.
Minister: Again, I am not going to go through details, but yes this is probably our most significant security operation that we ever had to conduct for an international event in Singapore.
BBC: And is that because of the…
Minister: It’s because of the significance of the occasion, the exposure of the two leaders, and also if you think about what is happening in the world right now. Unfortunately, security, terrorism, extremism is a clear and present danger. So for all those reasons in our own usual Singapore way, we’ve taken every precaution possible. And our police, our home team, our military, everything is deployed and ready.
BBC: What about the cost of all of this? There are reports that Singapore has…
Minister: The PM announced it yesterday. He said that it would cost us around S$20 million. It’s not cheap. The security itself is the biggest challenge. But we think this is an investment. It is an investment in world peace, and we can pull this off with no hitches… or even if things don’t go exactly to plan, the way we respond to it, the reputational benefits that will accrue to Singapore will far outweigh those costs. But it is, like I said, the primary point is not about money. It’s about securing peace, opportunity for development. And if we secure peace – it’s a major bugbear in Northeast Asia. Now imagine if that is resolved, and then you cast your eyes to Southeast Asia, the big difference between them and us is that Southeast Asia, in particularly for the original members of ASEAN, which you must remember, was formed in 1967 at the height of the Cold War and Vietnam War, is that we had peace, we had time to prove that economic openness, integration, globalisation, free trade, worked. In a sense, Singapore is the ultimate example of that paradigm. Now if you can secure peace and development in North Korea, and if you can dial down the tensions which have prevailed there for seven decades, it is going to have an enormous strategic impact.
And in fact, we should also understand the real strategic game in town is not just what happens in the Korean Peninsula. Ultimately, it is about the relationship between the United States and China, it’s about the future for free trade, it’s about prospects for economic integration across the Asia Pacific. Some of our partners now prefer to call it the Indo-Pacific, which is fine, as long as it is an inclusive concept. So the point is that the solution of the Korean War is an essential step towards fulfilling our larger ambitions.
BBC: Did Singapore pay for the North Korean contingent’s hotel stay for Kim Jong Un?
Minister: It’s hospitality that we would have offered them, and as Chairman Kim said yesterday, he would have liked to have come to Singapore anyway, with or without the Summit. We would of course have offered hospitality. So, yes we do.
BBC: So you’re confirming that Singapore did pay that hotel bill?
Minister: Well, it’s hospitality that I would have provided for him anyway. And it’s all within the budget that the Prime Minister has specified, anyway. So that’s not a consideration at all.
BBC: You talk about the economic development that North Korea appears to want, now as you say, that they’ve completed their military objectives. But how do you become a partner with a country that has, in the past, this attitude of being quite hostile, and move forward in a way where you can become partners economically?
Minister: Well, that’s why you must not look for instant solutions. As I said, it starts with sincerity and goodwill. Next, you build up your reservoir of trust, strategic trust, and then step-by-step, you establish a track record of win-win outcomes, project by project, deal by deal. That’s the way we approach it. In the case of Singapore, our advantage is that because we are just a tiny city-state, people know us, they know our style, they know that we are honest, we are reliable, we are transparent, we are friends with everyone and we don’t play games, and we maintain a consistent, principled approach. That actually puts us in good stead, in a very uncertain, somewhat volatile world. So for North Korea, I think they look at us and they realise that hey, everything which they see here, they can do, and more. And based on my short visit and interaction with them, there is no reason to assume that they can’t achieve that level of development that the rest of us, in Southeast Asia, have had, in the case of Singapore, the last five decades.
BBC: But that level of economic development has come with a transparent government, free and fair elections for the most part, a liberal democratic system. How do you reconcile that with what’s happening in North Korea now?
Minister: Again, my caveat there is that every political system has to evolve to fit its own unique national circumstances. So this idea that there is a single monolithic model that – I suppose you could call it the old Washington Consensus – I think the last two decades has shown us the limitations of that model. My own view is that we should accept diversity and we should accept that in fact what the conflicts, the Vietnam War, the Korean War have shown, is although they were fought in the name of ideology and really, Cold War superpower rivalry, my own conclusion is that peoples’ right and desire for self-determination, for the expression of national identity, for that sense of cohesion, actually trumps ideology and Cold War rivalry. We don’t want to be proxies of other peoples’ wars. What people all over the world want, and especially in Asia – we want good jobs, we want peace and security, and we want hope for a better future for our children and our grandchildren. So these are universal hopes but the recipes are different in each and every nation, and I think we should all be humble enough to accept that reality. And I think the world will be more peaceful and prosperous if we accepted that diversity and accepted that ultimately, every nation had a right to seek development in its own unique way.
BBC: What sort of model do you envision in the future for North Korea? Is it a China-led model?
Minister: Well, you will realise that the answer to that question follows from my earlier answer. I don’t believe in any single model. The North Koreans, or ultimately the Korean people, will have to decide on their model. We should leave it at that, we should give them the space, the opportunity, the security to make those choices. Singapore never holds itself up as a model, for instance. We tell all our friends, “You are welcome to come to Singapore.” In fact most of our interaction, even with other countries which are still developing, is in capability development. We have trained thousands, more than ten thousand, officials from all over the world. We also trained about 100 people from North Korea, over the decades. So Singapore is an open book. We don’t have any trade secrets. The secret recipe of Singapore is execution, implementation of plans. So we tell them, come here, study us, we are an open book. We are not hiding anything from you, there are no trade secrets here. But you will have to modify and apply back home. And if you can, and if we can play a part in it, win-win, even better.
BBC: Was the fact that Singapore is a country that isn’t generally known for protests - it is quite difficult to have a protest here without a police permit - one of the factors why Chairman Kim was willing to come?
Minister: I don’t think it was about protest, I think it was about security. And they know that we can provide their security. And quite frankly, I mean, the same consideration applies for President Trump. So again, let Singapore be Singapore, we do it our way. And the way we do things in this specific instance has been an attractive feature that gave both sides confidence so that they can focus their minds on the real hard work that begins tomorrow.
BBC: Singapore has been called the Asia’s Geneva in all of this, what do you think of that reputation?
Minister: Haven’t looked at it that way. But I think the point is, if you have an open city, a safe city, a city that accepts and welcomes diversity and is neutral, scrupulously neutral and deals with everyone in a straight and transparent way, it is attractive. So, it’s probably not really an accident that we’ve also been the site, in 2015, for the Xi-Ma meeting or earlier in 1993, the Wang-Koo talks. Although because that is China and Taiwan, and clearly Singapore has a special, unique niche in that equation. But I think in this present, it also reflects the fact that we’ve had a wide and deep relationship with United States for many decades, and also with the North Koreans. That’s why I went there to personally speak to them. I explained to them, “Look, we’ve had diplomatic relations for a long time, we have an embassy here since 70s.” But because we are small and we believe in international law and therefore by definition we have to comply with the Security Council Resolutions. Yes, our trade relations, our economic ties with North Korea have necessarily been constrained.” But they understand that, so no hard feelings. They understand how we operate, but nevertheless we respect them and we hope for the best for them. And because of that, we have had a good functioning relationship. I think that’s as much as we can do as a small tiny city-state. It’s a paragon of globalisation, before the world was coined.
BBC: What did they tell you? Because you went there on their invitation and what was it that they wanted to convey to you? What did they want to ask you?
Minister: Well, first I went there to make sure that, like I said, every last detail was in place. Also give them an assurance how seriously we are taking this. And also I wanted to see with my own eyes, meet people, let them show me what they wanted to show. I don’t think it was an accident that they even invited me to view their latest eye hospital. They know that I would know. The details -looking at the technology – they were showing me that despite it all, they have access to the latest and the best. More important than just buying equipment, people who have the skills and the training to use that equipment. So all in all, it was a very, to me it was a fascinating and very worthwhile visit.
BBC: What’s your definition of what success will be in this Summit?
Minister: Well as I said, I believe this summit is only the first step of a much longer and difficult process. The fact that it occurs is already positive. Let’s see what agreements, or at least, tentative agreements they can come up with on Tuesday or latest, Wednesday. If you see a de-escalation of tension, which hopefully in turn would be accompanied by security guarantees on both sides, lowering the possibility of war and enhancing the prospects for economic development, all those would be signs of success.
BBC: Thank you very much, Minister.
Minister: You’re most welcome.
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