SINGAPORE — Among the concerns following President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore was that all Kim wanted was a photo of himself next to the president of the United States — and that he has no intention of following through with his pledge to work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
But Singapore businessmen who’ve worked with the North Korean government think that’s short-sighted. Rather than Kim just wanting a photo op, three businessmen watching the summit told VICE News said they’re seeing a real attempt by North Korea’s leader to bring his country into the 21st century.
North Korea is not a capitalist country, so the number of people who’ve actually done business there is quite small. Among them is Patrick Soh, who helped bring fast food to Pyongyang back in 2009, and Geoffrey See, who started Choson Exchange, a group that brings business professionals into North Korea to teach people there how to run businesses.
Both have visited the country over 30 times and their view on the summit was different that what you usually hear in the American press.
Kim was educated in Switzerland and Soh believes his way of thinking about the world is fundamentally different from his father’s. He pointed to some of the superficial changes in Pyongyang like new high rise buildings and a new airport as acknowledgement from Kim that he knows things have to change.
“He needs to improve. He cannot let the country stay forever,” Soh told me while standing in Waffletown USA in Singapore. Soh owns the Asian franchising rights to the small American chain and brought part of the concept, but not the name, into North Korea.
“He’s young? Right? And North Korea has 24 million population. He needs to create a prospect of future for the people,” Soh said.
The restaurants Soh helped start in North Korea are still operating, but he can’t be involved with the business aspects anymore because Singapore has instituted sanctions against North Korea. However, Singapore does still have diplomatic relations with the Hermit Kingdom, that’s part of the reason the city was chosen for the site of the summit.
Geoffrey See’s experiences bringing business classes to North Korea and North Koreans to Singapore for workshops, taught him something about the people there — specifically the importance in trust, both in government and relationships. And while diplomatic professionals saw Trump’s attempt to establish trust at the outset as backwards from a diplomatic perspective, it does make sense for North Koreans.
“For the North Koreans you need to establish empathy and trust. You know you need to feel like I have a personal relationship with you and I trust you,” See said. He explained that North Korea is a top down society and Trump needed Kim’s buy-in to really get anything off the ground.
“What you need is someone at the very top who says that, ‘OK you know we can work this deal out,’” he said. “And, you know, everyone has to fall in line. I think that's the that's the reality of how the North Korean system works.”
So, while Trump may not have totally understood the cultural nuances of how his agreement to the summit would be perceived in North Korea, the summit in Singapore may have been exactly what needed to happen to place denuclearization on the table.
John Kim, a venture capitalist in Singapore who is of Korean descent, said that one thing Trump got right was the idea of “giving face” to Kim. “Giving face” basically means giving a level of respect and honor to the North Korean leader that puts him, even if it was superficial, on the same playing field as Trump.
“If you take a look at the positioning of every single detail of this summit whenever there was a possibility for the two sides, the two countries and the two people involved to be seen as equals they were. So they sat at positions that were equal. The flags were placed equally ,” Kim said.
Those seem like little things, but Kim stressed how important it was to communicate that to the other side of the negotiating table.
“I think President Trump is coming at it from a little bit more of a business-minded dealmaking view,” Kim said. “In the business world, when you think about negotiation, it's not about not giving the other person what they want. It's about giving the person what they want if it doesn't cost you a lot and vice versa. And if you can get a lot of those things done, then you get a win/win situation. And it didn't cost [Trump] a whole lot. ”
Kim did see a drawback to negotiations that are based in the level of trust just between the two leaders, but it has more to do with American democracy than Trump’s negotiating style. Asian political relationships tend to be personality-driven, which an make relationships with America tough with the president changes every four to eight years.
“My biggest concern actually is around the timing because President Trump has two more years and maybe he gets a bit more time, but diplomacy in general I mean it's a very relational exercise,” he said. “In the West it's institutionally relational exercise at times, but in Asia it has always has been a much more personally relational exercise.”
“So Kim Jong Un I think is sitting there saying, 'well I can promise all these things, but it's contingent on all the things that have been promised me. And if that guy's not in power in two years, then I don't need to follow through on what I said either.' So that's my biggest concern actually, for the momentum that could be building up is that we have two years there. Maybe another four years for the South Korean president. And who knows where we go from there,” Kim warned.
Cover image: Patrick Soh, Waffletown, USA in Pyongyang.