The North Korea government has joined the international community in sending its condolences to Singapore over the death of late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died in the hospital on Tuesday at age 91.
Park Bong Ju, premier of the North Korean cabinet, sent the message to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s son, on the death of the first prime minister and founding father of the city-state, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
In the message, North Korea expressed its sincere condolences, referring to the late Prime Minister Lee, who ruled Singapore from June 1959 to November 1990, as “founder of the Republic of Singapore” and an “intimate friend of North Korea.”
High-ranking defectors told RFA’s Korean Service that the reason the official message uses the words “intimate friend” was because the country’s authorities routinely visit the prosperous city-state to purchase luxury goods or receive medical treatment.
Singapore is known as the “Switzerland of Asia” among high-ranking North Koreans, they said.
Singapore is particularly significant to the family of current leader Kim Jong Un, because members have gone there to seek medical treatment and purchase luxury items, the defectors said.
Kim Jong Nam, the oldest son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the half-brother of Kim Jong Un, ended up in Singapore in 2012, a year after fleeing his home in the Chinese enclave Macau earlier that year.
He left Macau in fear of his life after Kim Jong Un took over as North Korea’s leader and settled in Singapore where it would be easier for him to travel to Europe to visit his son who was a student at an international college in Bosnia, according to reports at the time.
Lee Kuan Yew never visited North Korea, although Singapore and North Korea have regularly held ministerial-level talks.
Lee Su Yong, North Korea’s foreign minister, visited Singapore for four days last August, said Ko Yong Hwan, a South Korean security strategy analyst who was former North Korean diplomat.
The two countries established diplomatic relations in November 1975. North Korea has an embassy in Singapore, although the city-state does not have an embassy in the North Korean capital Pyongyang.
Singapore was North Korea’s fifth largest trading partner in 2014, according to the Business Korea website, which cited a report by the Korea Trade Promotion Corp., a state-funded investment and promotion organization run by the South Korean government.
North Korea mostly imports beer, soft drinks and processed foods from Singapore, those familiar with the country’s trade said.
The United Nation Security Council put sanctions against North Korea in place after the country conducted a nuclear test. The sanctions forbid the trade of military, technological and luxury items with the rogue country.
Last June, Singapore filed criminal charges against Chinpo Shipping Company (Private) Ltd. for transferring financial assets or resources that could reasonably be used to contribute to North Korea's weapons programs, which are subject to U.N. sanctions, Reuters reported.
Earlier that year, the U.N. had accused the company of helping arrange a shipment of Cuban fighter jets and missile parts that were bound for North Korea after they were seized in Panama in July 2013, the Reuters report said.
Reported by Songwu Park for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yunju Kim. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.