State media workers, security offer glimpse into tightly regimented North Korea

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - During a security lockdown inside and outside Singapore’s five-star St. Regis hotel before the arrival of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sunday, only two journalists moved freely along the blockaded street, flanked by crowds penned back by police.

A North Korean cameraman reacts as he is chased by media outside St Regis hotel, ahead of the summit between the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, in Singapore June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

The two were North Korean media workers waiting to capture images of their leader, who all North Koreans are duty bound to revere, arriving for a historic summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump flew into Singapore a few hours after Kim.

The two media workers, dressed in identical black suits, with lapel badges of former North Korean leaders and flanked by Singapore police, were busy getting into the best position for Kim’s arrival, setting up cameras in the middle of the cordoned-off road.

The behavior of the media workers and of North Korean security guards, who later accosted tourists taking photos, offered a glimpse into how isolated, tightly regimented North Korea works, just as Tuesday’s summit raises the prospect, perhaps still distant, that it might be about to take the first step towards emerging from its Cold War shell.

In authoritarian North Korea, where Kim’s family has passed on power through three generations, images propagated by state media such as the Korea Central News Agency, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper and Korean Central Television, help build a leader’s legitimacy and glorify his status.

As Kim’s motorcade approached the St. Regis, another two North Korean video cameramen in black suits emerged through the sun roof of a black SUV, filming the crowd.

One car back, a photographer dressed identically stood out of the sun roof of another black SUV, taking shots down the length of the motorcade.

Security around Kim’s hotel was extremely tight and guests were prohibited from going in and out, hours before Kim’s black Mercedes Benz limousine cruised in.

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While a dozen North Korean journalists flanked by dozens of North Korean security men worked to capture Kim’s every movement, guests in the hotel lobby were repeatedly told by Singapore police and hotel staff not to take pictures of any North Koreans, especially Kim.

When a couple of guests were seen sneaking a photo, a North Korean official stormed up to them, demanding to check their phones.

“I saw them taking a photo of our chairman. How dare they do so, they shouldn’t,” the official told Reuters later. He declined to be identified.

Under the watchful eye of the official, and St. Regis staff, one browbeaten male guest deleted his photos.

A woman guest, challenged by the same North Korean official, said she had only taken photos of the lobby and refused to show her phone.

After taking her to a private area, hotel staff assured the North Korean official that the guest did not have photos of Kim.

Other guests were bemused.

“What do you expect? It’s North Korea,” said one Western tourist with a shrug.

Nicola Harding, visiting from Britain, said that it was all “a little weird”.

But a human touch will always emerge, it seems.

Several of the reporters who accompanied Kim to Singapore had also been to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas in April for the inter-Korean summit.

Recognizing a Reuters reporter from then, one North Korean journalist, who declined to give his name, said: “It’s nice to see you again.”

Reporting by Soyoung Kim, Grace Lee, Joyce Lee and Dewey Sim; Editing by Robert Birsel and Raju Gopalakrishnan