June 13, 2018 / 12:40 AM / 5 days ago

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

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - 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.

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.

FILE PHOTO: A member of the North Korean security personnel waits for the arrival of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un at a hotel in Singapore June 10, 2018, ahead of the summit between the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

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.

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.”

Slideshow (3 Images)

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.”

Reporting by Fathin Ungku, Soyoung Kim, Dewey Sim, Joyce Lee, Grace Lee and John Geddie, Edited by Martin Howell

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