North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves from a train before leaving Pyongyang Station, North Korea, for Vietnam, on February 23, 2019. Image Credit: AP file

Washington: For his first known trip outside North Korea in almost four years, Kim Jong Un has likely returned to a favoured mode of transport: a luxuriously decorated, heavily armoured and exceptionally slow-moving train.

South Korean media reported on Monday, citing government officials, that Kim’s train appeared to have left the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, to start its long journey. Russian state media later confirmed that Kim would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia in the “coming days.”

US officials have said that Kim is likely to meet Putin in the Russian port city of Vladivostok, a little over 300 miles (480km) from the North Korean border, where they are expected to discuss arms shipments that could aid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

North Korea and Russia have a rail link at their border and from there it’s about 150 kilometers (95 miles) to Vladivostok.

Kim has rarely travelled outside North Korea since assuming the leadership of the country after the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011, and North Korea largely cut itself off from the wider world during the coronavirus pandemic.

Memorably, when Russian diplomats finally left locked-down North Korea in 2021, they used a railroad cart to cross the border.

A green train with yellow trimmings, resembling one used by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on his previous travels, is seen steaming by a slogan which reads "Towards a new victory" on the North Korea border with Russia and China seen from China's Yiyanwang Three Kingdoms viewing platform in Fangchuan in northeastern China's Jilin province onSeptember 11, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Like his father, who was reportedly scared of flying, and his grandfather - Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea - Kim has predominantly travelled internationally in a specially manufactured train, an unusual mode of transport for a 21st-century world leader.

However, for a high-profile diplomatic summit with President Donald Trump in 2018 he used a Boeing 747 operated by Air China. He used a North Korean airplane to make the relatively short trip to the Chinese city of Dalian in 2018 for his second meeting with President Xi Jinping.

Why train?
Security is likely the most significant reason that the Kims have favoured rail travel. One of Kim Jong Il’s former bodyguards said that the North Korean leader vowed to “never” travel by air due to concerns about being shot out of the sky.
Though Kim Jong Un is not believed to have the same fears, the aging nature of North Korea’s Soviet-made air fleet provides an additional worry. The North Korean leader also regularly travels via train within North Korea, and there are signs that the government venerates rail travel within the country, with a railway museum in Pyongyang showing off past journeys by leaders.
Some rail experts who have visited North Korea in recent years say that its rail network, built under Imperial Japan in the early 20th century, is in a state of disrepair. Ahn Byung-min, a South Korean railway expert, told The Washington Post in 2018 that conditions on the network had deteriorated since he first visited in 2000, with some journeys reminding him of the runaway mine cart in the film “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
The North Korean leader is not the only world leader to recently favour rail travel over air travel. Because of wartime threats to aviation, almost all visitors to Kyiv arrive via Ukraine’s rail service. That includes President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, along with other leaders who travel on specially created VIP trains. (Ironically, Ukrainian trains use the same gauge as Russia, which is different from the one used in Poland, so there is a similar wait at the border.)
Kim’s host in Russia also has his own secret luxury armored train. Some journalists suggest that Putin has traveled more regularly by rail since 2021 due to concerns about his own security.

Few outside the North Korean elite have travelled aboard the North Korean leader’s train. However, photographs from state media, accounts from travellers and reports from intelligence agencies all paint a picture of luxury travel.

The cars are painted a distinctive green and yellow on the outside. Footage from inside shows glossy white interiors, with long tables for briefings and flat-screen monitors. Other images show rooms with red leather armchairs.

Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and French cuisine

On board, there are likely to be other luxuries. One of the most detailed accounts of travel aboard a North Korean leader’s train came from a Russian official, Konstantin Pulikovsky, who recounted a trip across Russia’s Far East with Kim Jong Il in a book called “Orient Express.” Pulikovsky’s book described a gourmet menu with a wide variety of food on offer.

“It was possible to order any dish of Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and French cuisine,” Pulikovsky wrote, adding that there were cases of Bordeaux and Burgundy wines and live lobsters. The travellers aboard the train were entertained by young female singers, who were introduced as “lady conductors,” Pulikovsky recounted.

A 2009 article from the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, citing intelligence reports, said the train has a total of 90 rail cars. Some may be designed to carry vehicles: Georgy Toloraya, another Russian diplomat who travelled with Kim Jong Il in 2001, later wrote that two armored Mercedes cars were carried on that trip.

Kim Jong Un, second left, talks with Chinese Communist Party's International Department head Song Tao, second right, in a train on the way home from China, on January 9, 2019. Image Credit: AP file

As a comparison, the standard Amtrak Acela train has nine cars. However, the US train travels much faster, at a top speed of up to 150mph (240km). Kim’s train has a reported top speed of 55mph.

The slow speed of the North Korean train is commonly attributed to its immense weight, a result of extra armour that has been installed on the train.

Toloraya, the Russian diplomat, said that during a 2001 inspection of Kim Jong Il’s train by Russian technicians, they found there were armoured sheets beneath the two main rail cars used by the North Korean leader for residential and official purposes.

Widespread disruption

The technicians also discovered that the cars were of Soviet origin but had been heavily modified at some later date.

The train causes widespread disruption when it travels, often due to security concerns. The Chosun Ilbo reported that around 100 security agents are sent ahead to stations to sweep them for potential threats, while the power is turned off at stations to prevent other trains from moving. There is also a large logistical support group that includes Soviet-made Il-76 air force transport planes and Mi-17 helicopters, the newspaper reported in 2009.

At the time, an advance train handled security and made sure the tracks were safe, and the third and final train in the group carried support personnel and bodyguards, the Chosun Ilbo reported.

Even with this entourage, trains can prove a relatively inconspicuous way to travel compared with planes, which can be spotted with flight-tracking data or radar. Many of Kim’s recent trips have been announced only after their completion.

Different size gauge

The journey time from North Korea to Vladivostok is estimated at 20 hours, far longer than any flight could feasibly take. When Kim travelled to Vietnam for his second summit with Trump, the journey took 65 hours one way.

Kim’s father took weeks-long journeys via train during his rule, while Kim Il Sung once completed a train journey to Eastern Europe, via Moscow, in 1984.

In addition to the slow speed, there are other complications. Russia’s rail network uses a different size gauge than the one used on the Korean Peninsula, necessitating a considerable wait at the border. China, however, uses the same gauge as North Korea.