Reports that Kim Jong Un may travel to Russia soon have drawn attention to the traditional method of travel for North Korean leaders: luxury, armored trains that have long been a part of the dynasty’s lore and are symbols of its deep isolation.
In what would be his first foreign travel since the start of the pandemic, Kim may visit Russia this month for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a U.S. official has said, possibly to discuss North Korean arms sales to refill Russian reserves drained by its war on Ukraine.
According to U.S. reports, the two leaders could meet in the eastern city of Vladivostok, the site of their first get-together in April 2019, when Kim took his green-and-yellow train. Putin is expected in the city for the annual Eastern Economic Forum that runs from Sunday to Wednesday.
The reports come at a time when the leaders’ interests are aligning in the face of their deepening, separate confrontations with the United States.
Whether Kim could again make the rattling 20-hour journey by rail is a focus of media attention, as is the reportedly luxurious train, which stands in sharp contrast to the grinding poverty of daily life for most North Koreans.
Kim’s famously flight-averse father, Kim Jong Il, made about a dozen trips abroad during his 17-year rule, almost all to China and all by train. North Korea’s state media said that the elder Kim died of a heart attack during a train trip in 2011.
According to an account published in 2002 by Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian official who accompanied Kim Jong ll on a three-week trip to Moscow, the train carried cases of expensive French wine and passengers could feast on fresh lobster and pork barbeque.
The train’s most important feature, however, is security. According to South Korean media reports, North Korea has 90 special carriages in total and operates three trains in tandem when a leader is traveling — an advance train to check the rails, the train with the leader and his immediate entourage, and a third behind for everyone else. High-tech communication equipment and flat-screen TVs are installed so a leader can give orders and receive briefings.
In a sign of the trains’ symbolic importance, a life-size mock-up of one of the carriages is on permanent display at a mausoleum on the outskirts of Pyongyang where the embalmed bodies of Kim Jong Il and his state-founding father, Kim Il Sung, lie in state.
Kim, who is 39, has used his family’s armored train for previous meetings with Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and then-U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019.
But he does sometimes fly, unlike his father. Schooled for several years in Switzerland, Kim Jong Un is believed to have traveled by air often as a teenager.
When he jetted off to the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian in 2018 to meet with Xi, it was the first time a North Korean leader had publicly gone abroad by air since Kim Il Sung’s flight to the Soviet Union in 1986.
Kim’s official plane is a remodeled version of the Soviet-made IL-62. North Korea calls it “Chammae-1,” named after the goshawk, North Korea’s national bird. South Korean media say the plane can carry about 200 people and its maximum range is about 9,200 kilometers (5,700 miles) but it has reportedly never flown that far.
Putin, for his part, now prefers to avoid airplanes and also travels on a special armored train since his decision to invade Ukraine in early 2022, according to Gleb Karakulov, a defector from Putin’s secretive elite security service.
Kim’s earlier meeting with Putin required a daylong trip that began at the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and chugged over the country’s aging railways along the eastern coast before crossing a river that serves as the border with Russia.
Some analysts are skeptical that another meeting would occur on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum because Kim and his predecessors have preferred stand-alone summitry when making rare trips abroad
In all, Kim went to China four times from 2018 to 2019 to meet Xi — two of them by train and two on his jet. In June 2018, he borrowed a Chinese plane to meet Trump in Singapore, reportedly because his jet was deemed unsafe. For another meeting with Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, Kim took his train on the two-and-half day trip.
Since closing his country’s borders in early 2020 to guard against the COVID-19 pandemic, Kim hasn’t met any foreign leader.
Kim’s possible second trip to Russia could signal a restart of a summit-driven diplomacy and may be followed by a trip to China for a meeting with Xi, said Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea.