Tim Hentschel, CEO of HotelPlanner.com, is just your average travel executive who’d like to see President Trump’s big nuclear summit with North Korea go well.
So, naturally, he’s offered to pick up the North Koreans’ tab.
Hentschel’s Florida-based company faxed a formal letter to the North Korean embassy in China on Tuesday, offering to cover their hotel bills, after reading in The Washington Post that the U.S. was quietly encouraging the summit’s host, Singapore, to spot the proud but cash-strapped country, Hentschel told VICE News on Friday.
North Korea may have spent a fortune building a nuclear arsenal and importing luxury goods for its elite, but the isolated nation also has something of a tradition of not paying its travel bills when its leadership ventures abroad. That has raised the delicate question of who will cover them this time, since Washington, reportedly, has worried that making a direct offer might offend the North Koreans.
With the summit looming next week, the question remains unresolved.
Hentschel, 39, isn’t the only one to put his hand up. Two other outside groups have publicly offered to cover their costs, including the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, and the Singapore government itself.
Hentschel’s offer might be good publicity, but the businessman says it’s about promoting peace — and protecting the travel industry from the consequences of nuclear Armageddon.
“We all want world peace,” said Hentschel. “We also want this to happen badly, because if it doesn’t go well, it could be catastrophic for the tourism industry. Any kind of upset in world peace always hits travel first.”
North Koreans have gotten used to thinking of hotel bills as somebody else’s problem ever since South Korea launched the so-called Sunshine Policy two decades ago, according to Sung-Yoon Lee, professor of Korean studies at Tufts University.
That outreach to the North included economic sweeteners, like paying for Northern officials' trips over the border for talks. For example, when a North Korean delegation visited South Korea for the Olympic Games last winter, South Korea coughed up $2.6 million.
By now, diplomats from the North simply take it for granted that someone else will pay their way, Lee said.
But while the North Korean population lives in poverty, the regime could easily cover what is likely to be, at absolute most, a $1 million bill for a host of rooms in any of Singapore's swankiest hotels, said Lee. Hentschel estimated $100,000 would be enough to cover the entire North Korean delegation for a couple nights.
“It’s theater of the absurd,” Lee said. “Kim Jong Un lives like a multibillionaire. He’s got mansions and one of the world’s biggest militaries. He’s got his finger on the nuclear button. He can afford half a million dollars to cover this trip.”
Kim has been reportedly eyeing the $6,000-a-night presidential suite at The Fullerton Hotel, a world-class lodging with its own private elevator, white marble floors, glass-enclosed balcony, private study, and a baby grand piano.
The North Korean delegation has been spotted coming and going from the Fullerton, ABC news reported earlier this week.
The summit itself is due to be held June 12 at the Capella Hotel on a tiny Singaporean island covered in golf courses, called Sentosa, which used to be a pirate hangout.
A spokesperson for the Fullerton told VICE News she couldn’t comment on anything related to the summit.
What about sanctions?
U.S. sanctions, of course, bar Americans from doing business with North Korea in general, and with its leader, Kim, specifically. But in this case, they don't appear to be a problem, thanks to a clear legal exception applying to payments related to official government business, said former Treasury Department official Adam Smith.
“There’s a standing exemption for any transaction made in pursuit of official governmental activities,” said Smith, former senior adviser to the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, which administers and enforces U.S. sanctions.
Another exception relating to payments associated with travel costs could also potentially apply to a private citizen spending money on behalf of a government initiative, Smith said.
If so, that would leave Hentschel in the clear.
So who’ll pay? The U.S. has said it won't. Hentschel said North Korea hasn’t yet responded to his offer, and Lee said the country likely won't take private funding anyway.
Lee suspects Singapore will quietly front the money — and then forward the bill to South Korea.
What’s more, Kim may not even need to figure it out in advance. The U.S. and its allies are unlikely to let the big nuclear summit flounder over a little issue like a hotel tab, he said.
“If Kim Jong Un shows up and checks into a fancy hotel, and he doesn’t put down his credit card, they’re not going to kick him out, right?” Lee said. “He’ll say, ‘Someone else will take care of this.’ And they’ll say, ‘Yes, sir.’”