SINGAPORE — What does a dictator who has been hemmed in at home do on his biggest trip abroad in years? Sightsee, of course.
That is exactly what Kim Jong Un did Monday night, just 12 hours before his scheduled sit-down with President Trump to discuss his nuclear program and the prospect of officially ending the Korean War.
The Singaporean hosts seemed to be daring Kim to think big, to dream of the kind of glittering future his country could have if it opens up to the outside world, as they took him on the late-evening tour.
The outing was in stark contrast to Trump’s itinerary. The president went to the U.S. Embassy after having lunch with Singapore’s prime minister and was not seen again for the rest of the day.
But soon after 9 p.m., Kim headed out of his five-star hotel and set out first for Gardens by the Bay, a huge open space on Singapore’s waterfront with striking Flower Dome and Cloud Forest conservatories.
There, Singapore's foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, took a selfie with Kim and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in front of a wall of flowers. Kim, in the middle, was smiling and looking directly into the camera. “Jalanjalan,” Balakrishnan wrote on Twitter, using the Malay term for going for a walk.
Then the group crossed over Jubilee Bridge, an architecturally impressive pedestrian walkway over the Singapore River, to Marina Bay Sands, a breathtaking building comprising three towers with an enormous boat-shaped structure on the top.
The hotel and casino complex is owned by Las Vegas Sands, the company run by Sheldon Adelson, one of Trump’s biggest donors. Kim smiled and waved at the crowd gathered at the entrance to Marina Bay Sands, some of whom cheered and clapped for him.
The North Korean leader was accompanied by his sister and close aide, Kim Yo Jong, as well as cameramen for North Korea’s state television channel, suggesting his city tour will be featured on North Korea’s news broadcasts.
Guests at the Cé La Vi bar on the Marina Bay Sands' tiered 57th floor realized something was up soon after 8 p.m., when the deck on the level below was cleared and the area secured. About 9:30 p.m., in swept about 50 bodyguards, according to staff, with Kim in the middle.
He stood on the 56th-floor's rooftop “Sky Park” looking over the city, with its skyscrapers topped by illuminated Citibank and HSBC signs.
Kim was there for about 10 minutes, according to staff and patrons.
“I wondered why he was here. Doesn’t he have a meeting in the morning?” asked a British businessman drinking beer on the edge of the roof deck, the perfect spot to watch Kim on his tour.
The staff were not told who was coming to the bar, but they guessed. It was “scary,” one said.
After Kim and his entourage left, cleaners wiped away fingerprints from the glass barriers, according to local reports.
Singapore is a comfortable place for North Koreans. It is in Asia, and it has been ruled by one family for almost 60 years. It has strict rules, although nowhere near as strict as North Korea’s.
Its astonishing economic transformation offers a model for a strong developing state.
Because the island nation is so relatable, the Singaporean nongovernmental organization Choson Exchange has brought more than 100 North Koreans here over the past nine years, teaching them about finance and market economics and development.
“Bringing North Koreans to Singapore is about telling them that if they take the right steps, someday they will be a prosperous global city, too,” said Geoffrey See, the Singaporean who started Choson Exchange. “And this economic story is reflected in the infrastructure in the bay area, with the skyscrapers lining the business district, the Marina Bay Sands hotel crowning the skyline and the Esplanade flanking the bay.”
In fact, See has taken his North Korean groups on almost exactly the same city tour Kim undertook Monday night, although — unlike Kim — the other North Koreans stopped for a drink beside the infinity pool atop the Marina Bay Sands boat.
Singapore’s government appeared to be sending a signal to Kim about the possibilities for his own future, See said.
“I would not be surprised that part of the message the U.S. has for North Korea in bringing them here is to say, ‘If you take the right steps tomorrow, this could be the global prosperous city or country you can be in a generation,’ ” he said.