Singapore highlights regional stakes in U.S., North Korea summit

NEW YORK, June 7 (UPI) — North Koreans hold favorable views of Singapore, a country with an advanced free-market economy, and their trust in the nation may explain why Kim Jong Un considers it a safe location for the summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Ian Bennett, a British consultant with Singapore-based Choson Exchange, a nonprofit that has taken North Koreans to Singapore to study in mini-MBA programs, told UPI by Skype this week Singapore is one of the places that would allow the training to happen.

“That isn’t something we can do in just any country,” Bennett said, adding the two countries have had diplomatic relations since the ’70s.

“I suppose economically, politically you can see Singapore on a linear progression, from where North Korea is, [though] a very long, linear progression,” he said.

Singapore is also an example of development, a country that has changed “without complete overthrow or revolution” and maintains a high degree of control — a model the North Korean leadership could aspire to as it takes a route to state-sanctioned reform.

Bennett, who recently led a workshop on branding in Pyongyang, said the North Koreans attending the workshops are interested in entrepreneurship.

But that does not mean they are open to “capitalism,” Bennett said.

“Capitalism is a dirty word there, and we would never use that word because it sets off too many red flags. It has so much associated with it,” he said, comparing the negative connotations of the word to how some perceive the word “socialism” in the United States.

“It doesn’t mean a lot of the other trappings we would associate with it are not acceptable to them. So they are now happy to talk about making a profit.”

Call it entrepreneurship with North Korean characteristics — the North Koreans who go on exchanges in Singapore, or attend Bennett’s workshops in Pyongyang, are eager to learn about more efficient ways to run their business.

“They’re acutely aware that they live in a bubble, a protected if heavily sanctioned bubble,” Bennett said. “Once things open up they desperately need more real world examples of what works.”

While doubts about North Korea’s intentions to denuclearize linger in Seoul and Washington, North Korea has been recently signaling to the world it is open for business.

State media has promoted construction at the emerging Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist zone, and senior official Kim Yong Chol may have proposed the construction of a casino in North Korea to Trump at the White House.

Entrepreneurship could be gaining a wider acceptance than in the past.

Bennett said Choson Exchange has helped North Korean entrepreneurs open a coffee shop and advised others interested in developing solar panels and electricity surge protectors.

“That makes sense in the sanctioned environment and you’ve got expensive machinery where you can’t afford to replace the parts, and with a bad electricity supply,” Bennett said.

The summit looms large for the residents of Singapore, and the government has been actively engaged and mediating communication among United States, South Korean and North Korean stakeholders.

Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan is visiting Pyongyang Thursday and Friday and has spoken to Seoul and Washington ahead of the visit.

Jessica Lee, a U.S. expatriate in Singapore, told UPI the summit is dominating the airwaves there.

“The television in our office lobby has coverage and commentary of the summit on constant loop,” she said. “My daughter’s school has sent out a notice on how traffic patterns will be impacted that day, so they have encouraged us to arrange for alternative transportation.”

Lee, whose parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea, said Singaporeans ask for her opinion on the summit, when they learn she is Korean American.

The Harvard-educated Lee, who leads the health practice for WE Communications Asia Pacific, said she is “amazed” to be witnessing history in the making, adding North Korea appears to have evolved since leaving behind a more communist past.

“It’s a messy and complex situation to say the least,” she said.

Bennett said he’s staying on the side of cautious optimism ahead of Tuesday’s summit, but unpredictability prevails.

“I don’t think we should entirely focus on June 12. Provided it’s not a disaster, this really should be a starting point,” he said.

“It really isn’t just the United States involved here.”

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