Railroads have changed the world since English engineer George Stephenson built his first steam locomotive in the early 1800s. A train is a series of connected vehicles that run along a railway track, carrying people or cargo. Trains have transported numerous passengers and freight to faraway places. Cities were built and commerce developed where the trains stopped.
Today, the popularity of trains isn’t as great as it used to be, as the number of cars has increased rapidly and airplanes flying at high speed are becoming more common. Still, leaders of North Korea prefer to use trains, even when visiting foreign countries, rather than planes. Why do top leaders of North Korea travel by train?
Today, we’ll examine North Korean leaders’ private train with Professor Jeong Eun Chan at the National Institute for Unification Education.
In September, the eyes of the world were focused on North Korea.
North Korean media reported that leader Kim Jong-un departed from Pyongyang by his train on September 10 to visit Russia.
Kim’s train arrived at Khasan Station in the Primorsky Krai region near the North Korea-Russia border on September 12. The following day, the North Korean leader met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome spaceport. It was their first summit in four years and five months. When Kim Jong-un last visited Russia in 2019, he also traveled by train.
After Kim Jong-un took power, he hardly ever traveled abroad before 2018, although he often engaged in public activities domestically. In 2018 and 2019, he held summit talks with South Korea, five summit meetings with China, one summit with Russia and two such meetings with the U.S. Due to COVID-19-induced border shutdowns, he stayed in his country until September this year, when he visited Russia for a summit with Putin. With the exception of two summits in 2018—one with China in Dalian in May and the other one with the U.S. in Singapore the following month, Kim has always used a train when traveling outside of North Korea.
For his trip to Russia in April 2019, Kim traveled some 1,200 kilometers by train. Two months earlier, he also traveled for as long as 60 hours on his train for his summit with then-U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Kim used an aircraft provided by China to visit Singapore for his first summit with Trump in June 2018. When Kim traveled to the Chinese cities of Dalian and Beijing in May 2018, he took his personal jet called Chammae-1.
For his second summit with Trump in Vietnam in 2019, however, he chose to use his train, not his airplane, although it would have taken only three to four hours by plane. Why does the North Korean leader prefer the train over the airplane when traveling abroad?
Security is the main reason. Being in the train with many carriages can make the leader a difficult target. When Kim Jong-un is traveling, North Korea operates three trains—an advance train running ahead to check the rails, the middle train carrying the leader and the third one behind for security guards and equipment. The three trains are running at intervals, and it is impossible to know which train car is carrying the leader. Trains have an advantage in terms of defense against terrorism. Planes, in contrast, are vulnerable to outside attacks, with their flight routes easily exposed.
Trains are safer than airplanes, as the locations of the planes are fully disclosed during the flight. During the leader’s long train ride, North Korea can keep the people posted on new issues about the leader to achieve a maximum propaganda effect. The Kim family’s tradition for traveling by train started with regime founder Kim Il-sung.
Kim Il-sung’s birthday is called “Day of the Sun” in North Korea, where the word “sun” is associated with the country’s first leader. “Sun” is the official name of the train dedicated exclusively to the top leader. Locals also call it “special train” or “No.1 train.” It is said that former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin presented a train carriage to Kim Il-sung. With the exception of Kim Il-sung’s visit to Bandung, Indonesia, in 1965 by plane, former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il always used a train when traveling abroad.
North Korean leaders’ private train called “Sun” has served as their major transportation means. Former leader Kim Jong-il, in particular, who is known for his fear of flying, used a train when he went abroad to receive surgery.
He was on a train when he passed away in 2011.
North Korea officially reported that leader Kim Jong-il died inside his private train. Out of the train’s 20 carriages, four carriages were allocated for medical staff and equipment. But they still couldn’t prevent the leader’s sudden death, indicating that the situation was pretty serious.
Kim Il-sung took trains for his overseas trips regularly until he died in 1994. His son Kim Jong-il traveled abroad on eight occasions officially, but he never used a plane. Current leader Kim Jong-un traveled four days on the train for his summit with Putin in September this year. The love of train travel extends across the three generations of North Korean leaders. So, what does the leaders’ train look like?
On the surface, the train doesn’t look that fabulous. Seen from above, the dark green carriages look similar to trees and forests, so they do not get noticed very much. The train includes bedrooms, a restaurant and carriages for aides. The leader can work and have meetings inside the train. The train is equipped with a satellite communication system, with computers in carriages connected through telecommunication networks. The train has bulletproof glass and its floors are lined with bulletproof metal plates. The leader can be effectively protected during his journey on the special train.
It is easy to couple and uncouple railway cars of the leader’s train. So, it is possible to combine them in various different ways, in consideration of where the leader is visiting and why. The train is equipped with telecommunication devices needed for work, as well as attack weapons such as a mortar to protect the top leader. Its bulletproof windows, floors and walls can withstand outside attacks. The train in stealth mode is designed to evade radar detection. In a word, the train is more like a fortress. The train, which also has a compartment for transporting Kim’s bulletproof Mercedes-Benz, is also known for its luxurious decorations.
Former leader Kim Jong-il often used his train to meet foreign guests, including high-ranking Russian officials. A Russian military commander once spent time aboard Kim Jong-il’s train alongside Kim during his visit to Russia in 2001. In his memoir, the Russian official said that even Vladimir Putin’s private train did not have the comfort of Kim Jong-il’s train. But the leader’s train is not without drawbacks.
Weighed down by bulletproof metal plates, the North Korean leader’s train can run at a speed of up to 100 kilometers per hour. It is much slower than passenger trains in the United Kingdom and Shinkansen trains in Japan, which operate at speeds of 200 kilometers per hour and 320 kilometers per hour, respectively. It is also slower than South Korea’s high-speed KTX trains.
When Kim Jong-un traveled to Russia by train in September, it took two days from Pyongyang to the Russian city of Khasan, due to North Korea’s outdated rail network. Also, the railway between Baranovsky and Khasan is one of the most dilapidated rail lines in Russia. For that reason, it seems the train could run no faster than 50 kilometers per hour.
The North Korean leader’s train named “Sun” can be described as a perfect moving fortress and a luxury hotel. But its speed is rather slow. It took two days for Kim Jong-un to travel from Pyongyang to Khasan by train in September. The main reason is the old railroad, of course, but the immense weight of the heavily armored train also forces the train to travel slower than 100 kilometers per hour.
In fact, Kim Jong-un enjoys flying. He can even fly a small plane. There is another reason why he still uses his slow train.
Kim Jong-un can fly a plane well. North Korea’s school textbook in 2015 says that the leader started to drive a car at the age of three. I think Kim chose to ride the special train “Sun” that has been used for decades since the years of Kim Il-sung, in order to highlight his ruling legitimacy. As we know, Kim Jong-un has been emulating his late grandfather Kim Il-sung. He probably wants to show that he has inherited the tradition that has been passed down for three generations.
For the current leader, train travel also means that he is following in the footsteps of his predecessors. Kim Jong-un hopes to show to the people that he works tirelessly for the public while traveling by train, just as his father and grandfather did. In doing so, he is seeking to build up his image as a leader who loves his people and embed that image in the general public.
On an exhausting train tour, our dear leader says he always has two wishes. First, he is hoping for a “communist utopia,” where the people can live well so they won’t envy anyone. Second, he says he really wants to sleep.
Last year, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television aired some scenes of a new documentary film titled People’s Parent. The scenes showed the leader working in his office on board the train. He was seen to have a conversation with party officials at the table, on which a desk top, monitor, notebook and smartphone were placed. The train is called the leader’s “mobile office,” where he can give major instructions on the move. The documentary showed the insides of the train to highlight that the leader is working hard for his people.
North Korea produced documentary films to actively publicize the leader’s achievements. To complete the films that last 40 minutes, one hour or an hour and a half, it is necessary to create many scenes, including the ones showing the leader working in his office or wondering how to resolve people’s daily problems on his private train. The films produced scenes of the leader making strenuous efforts to improve the people’s livelihoods while traveling nationwide by train. For that purpose, the leader often used his private train when he visited local regions.
Kim Jong-un has used his private train not only for his overseas trips but for his field inspections of local regions in his country. Where is the next destination of the train? To resume his summit diplomacy after years-long border closures triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, he chose to visit Russia, using his private train again. We’ll have to wait and see what will be the next step for the North Korean leader.