3 days with the North Koreans - awkward glances and a scant smile

3 days with the North Koreans - awkward glances and a scant smile
A North Korean cameraman reacts as he is chased by media outside St Regis hotel.
PHOTO: Reuters

SINGAPORE - At the end of the second night of living in the same ritzy Singapore hotel as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a member of his security staff sat beside a Reuters reporter in the lobby and smiled.

It was a fleeting moment of warmth from the throngs of Kim's bodyguards, who stalked the St. Regis hotel day and night with an intense gaze, declining to make eye contact with hundreds of journalists, guests and bar patrons gathered to snap a quick peek of the reclusive leader.

Thinking she had a chance to find out more about Kim's visit, Reuters reporter Fathin Ungku asked the smiling guard, "How are you doing?'"

The guard pushed out his hand, waved it in front of her face, and then, despite it being indoors and night time, produced a pair of sunglasses, cleaned them and put them on.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives in Singapore for summit

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    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for the first time on Sunday.

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    The two leaders exchanged broad smiles and warm thank-yous when they met at the Istana.

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    Kim thanked Singapore for hosting the historic summit between him and US President Donald Trump on Tuesday.

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    North Korea's capacity for distraction and sleight of hand was on show Sunday as leader Kim Jong Un flew to Singapore for his summit with US President Donald Trump.

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    No fewer than three aircraft made their way to Singapore from Pyongyang airport, a facility that frequently sees fewer than three international flights a day. Instead, he flew on an Air China Boeing 747.

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    In Singapore, its high-profile passenger was met by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who tweeted a picture of himself shaking hands with Kim, who wore a dark lapel-less suit.

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    Kim was driven into the city-state in a convoy of more than 20 vehicles, including an ambulance, with North Korean television cameramen filming his progress through the sunroofs.

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    Reporters and photographers packed the pavements outside the St Regis hotel where Kim was to stay. Covers had been hung over the driveway and hotel security brought out additional potted plants to obstruct the view of the lobby.

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    Located just off Singapore's diplomatic district and a stone's throw away from the Orchard Road shopping belt, the modernist St Regis is tucked between an ageing building dotted with carpet shops and a sleepy high-end neighbourhood mall.

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    On the 20th floor, the ostentatiously opulent 335-square metre Presidential Suite, where Kim was believed likely to stay, features a Marc Chagall artwork and a white baby grand piano.

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    Its rooms are "lined with gold, and accented with precious metals like brass, onyx and silver", the hotel says on its website.

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    It does not give prices but the list price of a similar facility in New York is $35,000 a night.

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    Who will pick up the bill for the North Koreans' stay has been the subject of much speculation

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    Pyongyang has a history of trying to have others pay for its travel -- Seoul paid for its delegates to this year's Winter Olympics in the South.

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    But a Seoul presidential spokesman said it was "not considering it at all at the moment", while the US has insisted it will not foot the bill -- and is not asking anyone else to do so.

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    Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Sunday his government was spending around S$20 million to host the summit, around half of it on security.

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    "It's a cost that we are willing to pay. It's our contribution to an international endeavour which is in our profound interests," he said.

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    A North Korean cameraman is chased by media outside St Regis hotel, in Singapore

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For six Reuters journalists covering Kim's historic summit with U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday, home for the past three days was the cream-coloured, marble floor lobby of the St. Regis, one of Singapore's most luxurious hotels.

It is rare for any Western journalist to get anywhere near Kim, let alone stay in the same building.

However, the Reuters reporters assembled at the St. Regis constantly found themselves under the watchful eyes of North Korean security guards, hotel staff and Singapore police, whose job it was to make sure that journalists did not get close to the North Korean leadership, especially Kim himself.

Photography was banned. The only exception was for about a dozen North Korean state media workers who travelled with Kim from Pyongyang. They were allowed to take pictures and work within the cordon.

A team of six Reuters journalists from Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore bureaus took turns staking out the hotel during the duration of Kim's stay, from dawn until close to midnight.

The reason for our obsessive monitoring is that Kim has hardly travelled outside the country since becoming North Korea's leader in 2011. And the limited disclosure about his itinerary left him plenty of opportunity for surprise forays around the island state.

The Singapore trip was the longest he is thought to have taken in that time.

DESPITE MAKE OVER, STILL INTIMIDATING

Kim's unexpected visit to some of Singapore's tourist sights on Monday night, where he was snapped by local revellers smiling atop the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel, was a sign of a dramatic makeover for the long isolated leader, who only several months ago traded threats of a nuclear war with Trump.

Kim Jong Un goes on night stroll on Singapore's waterfront

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    The usually closely-guarded North Korean leader Kim Jong Un broke away from summit preparations Monday for a night-time stroll on the Singapore waterfront, even posing for selfies with the city-state's foreign minister.

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    The picture posted online by Vivian Balakrishnan as the group toured a series of major sites, less than 12 hours ahead of Kim's meeting with US President Donald Trump, is the first such public image of the North's leader.

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    In his own country, his appearances are normally carefully managed, with any foreigners present having to go through hours-long security checks beforehand.

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    Kim was spotted walking inside, with his sister and close aide Kim Yo Jong also part of the group.

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    "He said Singapore is clean and beautiful and every building is stylish as he heard of in the past, adding he is going to learn a lot from the good knowledge and experience of Singapore in various fields in the future," the KCNA report added.

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    At the Marina Bay Sands (MBS) hotel, casino and convention centre, Kim visited the high-level SkyPark that links the three 55-storey towers of the complex.

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The crackdown against unauthorised photography became most severe when Kim was on the move.

During those periods, floods of heavily-armed Singapore police and government officials would join North Koreans ushering guests behind a rope and obscuring the view of Kim's party.

Phones and cameras were banned, and the devices of anyone seen taking photos were confiscated and pictures were deleted.  

On Tuesday, Reuters reporters saw a hotel guest take a selfie with a North Korean security guard in the background. He got very angry and called over Singapore police officers, who made the guest delete the photos.

The guard watched over this intently, gesticulating at the phone and making a cross with his fingers, even after the police said the photos had been deleted.

The Reuters team became such a presence in the lobby and other public areas that the North Koreans learned that a few of us are Korean speakers. When we were nearby, they talked in hushed voices or tried to move out of ear shot.

A Reuters reporter managed to strike up a stilted conversation in English with a North Korean woman while they waited for the elevator. Her American accent suggested her high-standing as few are allowed to travel outside the country. She declined to comment on her travel plans or expectations for the summit.

The chat was quickly cut off when a group of North Korean officials appeared from an elevator behind her. The woman broke eye contact and turned away.

After the group had left, she pointed to the elevator and said, "I think that your lift is here now."

The reporter apologised saying he was sorry if it had put her in an awkward spot. She said, "It's ok, it's my prerogative to talk to you."

 

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