A Bloomberg report that highlighted what is thought to be Kim Jong-un’s first non-domestic trip since 2011 has also brought more speculation, and also allows a look back at the train system that the Kim family has used in facilitating their secretive, highly-private regimes over the years.
Considering that reports of Kim’s train – the same one, apparently, that his father used to travel to and from allied nations before he died in 2011 – entering and departing from China are vague and shrouded in speculation, it’s enough to wonder whether the North Korean dictator has actually traveled since 2011 undetected, and if so, where.
Though his father and grandfather were undeniably cut from the same cloth as Kim Jong-un, reports indicate that his father was a more frequent traveler than his son, as Kim Jong-il traveled to nations such as Russia and China with camera crews in tow, a move that is a stark contrast from Kim Jong-un’s notoriously low-profile M.O. The possibility that Kim Jong-un has traveled previously without attracting outside attention – meeting with one of the nation’s few allies – seems a more realistic possibility in light of Reuters report that, after stopping in Beijing, the train would be headed to an unnamed “third location”.
To assume that the North Korean train has traveled to Russia or China before this most recently publicized trip is admittedly speculative. However, the likelihood that most Americans who have not personally inquired haven’t even been made aware of the fundamental role that the Korean State Railway has played in North Korean ‘diplomacy’, not to mention domestic travel in the nation, also seems to corroborate that it’s possible, if not likely, Kim Jong-un has ventured abroad without outside reporters catching onto his movements.
North Korean officials haven’t confirmed nor denied reports of the diplomatic trip to Beijing which has been widely reported. It’s par for the course in the constantly-spinning wheel of deceive-the-West gamesmanship that both Kim and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have been so fond of employing. China has gone so far as to employ their ubiquitous censors to curtail such reports, a move which you can read into how you may.
In a day and age where a meeting – or even a phone call, if it’s between the Kremlin and the White House – carries inherent significance to the right people, such secret meetings are important. For this reason, we must consider that Kim has, in the past, made secretive voyages on his train, but we can also use this opportunity to examine the preferred method by which a hermit dictator does make his treks, as infrequent as they may be.
Railways in Korea saw their inception during the Japanese occupation of Korea circa 1945. However, the Korean State Railway system, the one which now operates out of its hub in Pyongyang and is the system which Kim Jong-un, his father, and grandfather have used to travel during their respective reigns, began construction in 1946 under the watch of occupying Soviet forces. The socialist Democratic People's Republic of Korea came to be established in 1948 after the breakdown in peace negotiations between the North and South, and the subsequent installation of Kim Il-sung, leading to the Korean War and an entrenched, hermitic North Korea as we know it today.
Those railways would be critical to North Korea, whose outlets to the North lead directly to the two nations that have most facilitated their existence, China and Russia. The 1960s were a relative boom time for North Korea, with electrification and increased ability to utilize its natural resources feeding further extension of the railway system. And, as North Korea has found ways to increase its adoption of more modernized technology, the train that has carried North Korean delegations both domestically and abroad have become more sophisticated, though they are far from advanced.
Today, as many news sources are eager to report, Kim Jong-un and his chosen representatives travel on a train ‘unlike any other’. For one, there’s the predictable fact that it is stocked full of fine wines and booze, a habit that Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un are known to have in common.
‘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 in 2001, the train was laden with cases of Bordeaux and Beaujolais from Paris. Passengers could feast on live lobster and pork barbecue.’ (Fox)
There’s also the classic hints at the cult of personality form of government that still rules the country, with large-scale murals of the Kims adorning the walls, along with commemorations of past voyages made. Then there’s the security.
‘According to South Korean 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 train behind for everyone else.
Advanced communications and flat screen TVs have been installed so the North Korean leader can give orders and receive news and briefings.’
It’s also thought to be bulletproof, which is only logical in a day and age where North Korean leadership is perhaps more vulnerable than any time in recent memory, for understandable reason.
Frills aside, it’s important that attention is being paid to the Supreme Leader’s personal train, and more importantly, where the train is traveling. Fox notes that most often, the trips of Kim Jong-un’s predecessors were not known until after they were over. In many cases, it’s fair to assume they never became public knowledge at all.
We still don’t know for certain that it was Kim Jong-un who was riding on the slow-moving Korean State Railway when it crossed the Chinese border and into Beijing. But, odds are, the train which is rarely granted use by anyone but the Korean dictator was occupied by Kim. The question remains: where else has the train traveled outside of foreign knowledge in the past and of what significance may meetings conducted out of the public’s knowledge have had?
All we know for certain is that if Kim Jong-un has in fact ventured to Russia, China, or even beyond to conduct his all-too-unpredictable form of diplomacy and business since 2011, he took the train to get there.