SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Shortly after a group of suited North Korean diplomats set out from their Singapore hotel on Monday for talks with U.S. officials on the eve of a historic summit, a bigger group of North Koreans headed out in summery shirts for some shopping.
U.S. President Donald Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a small resort island off Singapore’s port on Tuesday for an unprecedented summit aimed at getting the North to give up its nuclear weapons.
For the leader of isolated North Korea and his delegation of dozens of officials, state media workers and security staff, the rare foreign trip is an opportunity to build diplomatic bridges and to explore the capitalist successes in Singapore, one of the world’s wealthiest city-states.
The North Korean delegation is staying at the five-star St. Regis hotel where the lobby has a cream-coloured marble floor, chandeliers and large art works on the walls.
The hotel’s lavish 47 Singapore dollar ($35) per person buffet breakfast costs about the same as what most North Koreans earn in a month.
Among the three dozen or so North Koreans seen at breakfast on Monday were some of the regime’s most powerful men, usually only spotted by North Korea watchers in photographs published in state media as they line up at official events.
Four-star general and vice chairman of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim Yong Chol, party vice chairman and director of its International Affairs Department Ri Su Yong and foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, were among them.
Hotel staff discouraged other guests from interacting with the North Koreans, or taking their photographs.
North Korean media staff sampled Chinese dimsum, pastries and fried eggs and took souvenir photographs of each other in the grand dining hall.
Such treats are unheard of for most North Koreans, even for government officials, who have seen their chances of overseas travel wither in recent years as their country’s isolation has increased under sanctions imposed over its nuclear and missile programmes.
Totalitarian North Korea’s governing ideology of “Juche”, which champions self-sufficiency, has brought little but decades of economic stagnation, widespread poverty and, at times, starvation.
Most ordinary North Koreans rely on a monotonous diet of rice, corn, kimchi and bean paste, and they lack essential fats and protein, according to testimonies from defectors and from U.N. officials allowed to visit.
The U.N. World Food Programme says a quarter of North Korean children under five, who attend nurseries that it supports, suffer from chronic malnutrition.
On Sunday night, hours after Kim and his delegation arrived in Singapore, Reuters reporters saw North Korean officials, some wearing pin badges of their leaders, ordering $100-plus-per-person dinners at the hotel’s high-end Chinese restaurant.
Others appeared to go for Western fast food.
A group of North Korean security staff were seen coming back into the hotel with cardboard boxes, one with McDonald’s takeaway. North Korea is one of the world’s few countries without a McDonald’s.
Two North Korean officials, whose identity could not be confirmed, were seen returning from the shopping trip with bags from the NBC Stationery and Gifts shop.
The North Koreans are staying on the top three floors of the St. Regis, a Reuters reporter discovered.
The upper floors have suites at more than S$5,000 a night and the Presidential Suite, at about S$9,000 a night, according to the hotel’s web site.
The Presidential Suite has a dining room, living room, study, bedroom and terrace, workout room, steam room, a butler service and kitchen.
The St. Regis declined to comment on who was staying on the top floors, or how many rooms the North Koreans were occupying.
Reuters could not confirm if leader Kim was staying in the Presidential Suite.
Singapore, doing its bit to promote peace, has said it expects to spend about S$20 million ($15 million) on hosting the summit, including the North Koreans’ hotel bill, Singapore’s foreign minister told the BBC.
($1 = 1.3350 Singapore dollars)
Reporting by Dewey Sim, Joyce Lee, Fathin Ungku, Soyoung Kim, Aradhana Aravindan and John Geddie; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Miral Fahmy; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Robert Birsel