Thursday 24 January 2019

Surreal Korea circus kicks off in Singapore

Kim Jong-un is greeted by Singapore premier Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: Reuters
Kim Jong-un is greeted by Singapore premier Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: Reuters

Nicola Smith in Singapore

There's still a day to go but the drama has already begun in the tiny city-state of Singapore.

Ahead of tomorrow's summit between the US and North Korea, the signs are already in place that there will be no shortage of geopolitical pageantry and plenty of surreal prime-time TV.

Touching down at Changi airport in an Air China 747 around 3pm yesterday, Kim Jong-un, North Korea's leader, was immediately whisked to the luxury St Regis hotel in his personal black stretch Mercedes Benz, flanked by a motorcade of more than 20 vehicles.

His jogging bodyguards - a hit at the inter-Korean summit in April - made a brief appearance, running alongside his car in dark suits and ties in the afternoon humidity as he approached curious crowds lining barricaded streets to capture a glimpse of the historic moment.

The lobby of the St Regis was decorated with an elegant arrangement of red lace leaves, chosen for their "auspicious colour" to welcome the reclusive leader, reported the 'Straits Times'.

If Mr Kim stays in the €5,770 a night presidential suite, which is "lined with gold and accented with precious metals like brass, onyx and silver", he will be able to enjoy a jacuzzi in the marble bathroom and be waited on by a personal butler and executive chef under Czech crystal chandeliers.

In a reflective moment, he may also spare a thought for his late half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who in a macabre twist was reportedly fond of staying at the St Regis himself before he was assassinated last year at Kuala Lumpur airport in an alleged North Korean plot.

Donald Trump, the US president, landed at the Paya Lebar air base a few hours after a US Airforce C-17 transporter plane that was believed to be carrying his custom-made armoured limousine, nicknamed 'The Beast'.

A more animated crowd greeted him with cheers as his convoy reached the opulent Shangri-La hotel, a high-security venue located in lush gardens less than a kilometre from the St Regis.

Both leaders will meet with Lee Hsien Loong, the Singapore prime minister, ahead of the highly anticipated summit at the Capella hotel on the secluded island of Sentosa.

Mr Kim had an audience with Mr Lee yesterday evening, while Mr Trump will greet him today.

Mr Lee addressed public disquiet over the costs of the summit yesterday, admitting the bill for hosting the unprecedented meeting would run close to $20m (€17m), with half of the figure related to security.

"It is a cost we are willing to pay," he said, adding Singapore's contribution to the international endeavour is "in our profound interest".

Singaporean citizens have little say in the matter. Public assemblies without a police permit are illegal on the streets of placid, ultra-modern Singapore, with the exception of the closely monitored Hong Lim park, where demonstrators may have their say in a 'Speaker's Corner' in the shadow of a police station.


"People here have been silenced for a long time," said Patrick Low, the leader of a small group rallying in the park. "I want people to reflect on war and peace."

But Singapore also wants to cash in on the occasion to showcase its tourist attractions and multi-ethnic cuisines.

With a flurry of tailor-made gimmicks that include 'Kim' and 'Trump' cocktails, burgers and a KFC four-piece meal "for peace", plus the arrival of former basketball player Dennis Rodman on a trip sponsored by a cryptocurrency for marijuana, the summit is rapidly acquiring a circus feel.

North Korea has brought its own celebrity touch in the form of Hyon Song-wol, a politician and lead singer of the Moranbong band, known as North Korea's answer to the Spice Girls.

But if Singaporean chefs hope Mr Kim will develop a taste for their fine delicacies, they are set to be disappointed. The paranoid leader is reportedly importing his own food, fearful of being poisoned. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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