SINGAPORE — A crowd of curious onlookers has gathered beyond the perimeter of the heavily fortified St. Regis Hotel here Sunday afternoon when a gold-colored tour bus with tinted windows pulls up to the curb. Out pop two dozen men in dark business attire.
“It's the running guys, in suits!” a girl exclaims. The crowd mummers. They're here to get a glimpse of one of the world's most villainous dictators, North Korea's Kim Jong Un, who is due any moment ahead of his historic summit with President Trump on Tuesday. But Kim's reputation, morphing amid a remarkable regional charm offensive, has preceded him — the cartoonish leader of the Hermit Kingdom, whose phalanx of lockstep body guards were turned into a social media meme after they were filmed jogging robotically next to his armored Mercedes sedan in the Korean demilitarized zone during a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April.
Now, here they are, on the streets of a hyper-modern Southeast Asian financial hub, hustling into position outside a luxury 5-star hotel just beyond a pedestrian-filled, upscale shopping corridor. They're dressed in dark baggy suits and ties with red lapel pins featuring the visages of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, the current leader's father and grandfather.
They take their places, next to local police — some dressed in commando gear and holding machine guns — and stand nearly motionless, their hands behind their backs. They are spaced out, just behind a row of concrete security barriers that were placed around the building a day earlier. “It's just incredible discipline. That guy hasn't moved at all,” says a man in the crowd, gathered behind a metal security fence set up on the other side of the street to keep journalists and curious onlookers at bay. Kim, paranoid about threats to his safety, is said to have demanded significant security on his longest trip outside North Korea since taking power in 2011.
The day is slightly overcast and muggy, with a slight breeze to cool things off. But as the crowd grows and waits, the collective body heat is making things more uncomfortable.
“I'm bored,” a young girl moans to her father, who has tried to convince her that she is about to witness history. “How long is it going to take?” He encourages her to be patient. An elderly woman, in a wheelchair, waves at herself with a paper fan.
“I'm excited,” a woman says to a friend. “I've never seen a North Korean before.”
“You've probably never seen an Ethiopian before,” he replies. She concurs.
But North Korea is different, mysterious, unknown. Kim's regional tour has taken him to China twice and across the border into South Korea. Now here he comes, on his way — the authoritarian, 30-something leader of a reclusive state of 25 million who is accused of having been involved in the assassination of his own half brother at a Malaysian airport two years ago. That sibling, Kim Jong Nam, often stayed at the St. Regis when he visited Singapore.
How is one supposed to feel about such a man and why does one wait for more than two hours in the heat and humidity for a chance to catch a glimpse of him?
Singapore was selected as the site for the Trump-Kim summit because of its reputation as a neutral nation that maintains diplomatic relations with both countries and had proven itself capable of providing tight security for other high-profile international events. In 2015, the nation staged a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou, the first such meeting in nearly seven decades.
Authorities have taken great care to prevent protests this week. Trump and Kim will meet at the secluded Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, just off Singapore's southern coast. Outside the St. Regis, the crowds are orderly and there is no sign of protesters — nor any visible shows of Kim supporters, for that matter. The onlookers are just here, awaiting a small chance at witnessing history.
“Dad, you said five minutes,” the young girl says.
“Okay, five more,” he replies. He hands her an iPad and she sits on the concrete sidewalk to play preloaded video games. Someone in the crowd checks his phone and announces that Kim has landed at Changi airport and his motorcade is on the way.
Before long, the men in dark suits begin shifting positions. Two Singaporean police in combat gear appear and move into the street. The traffic stops and a police motorcycle passes, then another.
Finally, a car appears, then a black van, with television cameramen poking their torsos out of the sunroof, filming the motorcade behind them. The people in the crowd hold up their cellphones. And finally here it comes — a black Mercedes-Benz, with dark-tinted windows and a North Korean flag on the front.
The vehicle passes in front of the hotel, then curves into the driveway and out of view. “That's him,” someone in the crowd says. But Kim cannot be seen inside. A white van stops and out pops members of North Korea's state media. One sets up a stepstool in the street, hops up and snaps a photo of the St. Regis.
Behind a row of potted lady palms that the hotel staff had assembled to help keep Kim's movements private, news camera capture from afar images of the body guards, jogging beside Kim's limo in the driveway.
But for the crowd outside, the show is over and it's time to disperse. A few linger to take pictures with the hotel in the background, a keepsake to remember their small part in history.