Kim Jong Un’s confirmed trip to Russia for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin has drawn attention to the traditional method of travel for North Korean leaders: luxury, armoured trains that have long been a part of the dynasty’s lore and are symbols of its deep isolation.
A brief statement on the Kremlin’s website on Monday said Kim’s visit was taking place at Putin’s invitation “in the coming days.” North Korean state media also reported the meeting but didn’t specify when and where it would happen.
The last time the two leaders met, in April 2019, Kim made a rattling, full-day journey along his country’s aging railways to get to far east Russia. South Korean media cited anonymous government sources to report Monday that a train presumably carrying Kim had departed from North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang.
Putin and Kim could meet in eastern Russia’s city of Vladivostok, where Kim took his green-and-yellow armoured train to their previous summit. Russian state news agency Tass said Putin arrived in the city Monday to attend an international forum that continues through Wednesday.
Associated Press journalists near the North Korea-Russia frontier saw a green train with yellow trim at a station on the North Korean side of a border river.
U.S. officials have said a meeting with Kim would give Putin a chance to advance discussions on North Korean arm sales to refill Russian reserves drained by the war in Ukraine. North Korea could seek badly needed economic aid and advanced weapons technologies that could potentially increase the threat of a growing nuclear weapons and missiles arsenal that is designed to target the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
Whether Kim would again travel by rail for his first foreign trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic has been a focus of media attention. His reportedly luxurious train 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, was security.
A green train with yellow trimmings, resembling one used by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on his previous travels, is seen on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
According to South Korean media reports, Kim Jong Il had several luxurious trains equipped with reception halls, conference rooms and high-tech communication facilities. To guard against possible attacks, his train reportedly travelled with two other trains, with one running in advance of his vehicle to check the safety of the rail line while another carried security agents and followed behind. High-tech communication equipment and flat-screen TVs were installed so that the leader could 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.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said it couldn’t immediately find records that Kim Jong Un used advance trains like his father did when he made his previous foreign trips by rail before the pandemic.
Kim, who is 39, has used his family’s armoured 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 is believed to have travelled 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 Jong Un’s official plane is a remodelled 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 kilometres (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 armoured 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. Associated Press journalists near the North Korea-Russia frontier saw a green train with yellow trim at a station on the North Korean side of the border river Monday evening. It was unclear whether Kim was on the train, which had not crossed the bridge as of 7 p.m. (1000 GMT) Monday.
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.