SINGAPORE— Spare a moment, as you anticipate one of the most unusual summits in modern history, to consider North Korea’s leader as he left the all-encompassing bubble of his locked-down stronghold of Pyongyang on Sunday and stepped off a jet onto Singapore soil for his planned sit-down with President Donald Trump on Tuesday.
There’s just no recent precedent for the gamble Kim Jong Un is taking.
As far as we know, his despot father only traveled out of the country by train, and rarely at that, because of fears of assassination. Kim, up until his recent high-profile summit with South Korea’s president on the southern side of their shared border, has usually hunkered down behind his vast propaganda and security services, or made short trips to autocrat-friendly China.
While Singapore has authoritarian leanings, it is still a thriving bastion of capitalism and wealth, and Kim will be performing his high-stakes diplomatic tight-rope walk in front of 3,000 international journalists, including a huge contingent from the ultra-aggressive South Korean press — sometimes referred to by Pyongyang as “reptile media” — two of whom were arrested by Singapore police investigating a report of trespassing at the residence of the North Korean ambassador.
While he famously attended school in Switzerland, traveling this far as supreme leader is an entirely different matter for someone used to being the most revered, most protected, most deferred to human in his country of 25 million. Kim is, essentially, upsetting two decades of carefully choreographed North Korean statecraft and stepping into the unknown.
There’s wild speculation about how Kim will perform on the world stage: Will, for instance, his well-armed, well-muscled bodyguards march alongside his armored limousine in a half-sprint, as they did when he met the South Korean leader? But amid the curiosity is an even more fundamental question: Why is he taking this risk at all?