North Korean leaders travel in a train unlike any other
TOKYO (AP) — When North Korea’s leaders need to travel, they’ve got a train that’s unlike any other.
The arrival of the deep green train with yellow piping used exclusively by the ruling Kim family generated much speculation before the official confirmation Wednesday that it had carried leader Kim Jong Un on his first trip outside of North Korea since taking power upon the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.
Here’s a look at what’s known about the North Korean ruling family’s personal version of the Orient Express.
Just how often Kim Jong Un has used the train to get around inside North Korea isn’t known.
But his father, who famously hated flying and had a penchant for a playboy lifestyle, is said to have decked the train out for lavish parties, bouts of heavy drinking and karaoke on his many journeys by rail.
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 carried cases of Bordeaux and Beaujolais from Paris. Passengers could feast on live lobster and pork barbecue.
A version of the train open to the North Korean public is more businesslike.
A life-sized mock-up of one of the train’s carriages is on permanent display in the ornate mausoleum on the outskirts of Pyongyang where national founder Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lie in state. According to North Korea’s official account, Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack while on a long-distance train trip.
The display room features a map of the trips the leaders made on the train, with little lights to indicate each stop. One of the many paintings on the wall shows Kim Jong Il standing beside the train on one of those journeys. Kim Il Sung also used the train extensively, taking it all the way to eastern Europe in 1984.
Inside the car is a desk used by the leaders, along with chairs and a sofa.
Guides at the mausoleum explain that the carriage was used as a mobile office — proof, they insist, the leaders worked tirelessly for the people.
SAFETY ON THE RAILS
Kim Jong Il made about a dozen trips abroad, almost all to China and all by train.
The first was in 1983, while he was still Kim Il Sung’s heir apparent. That was the only time the special train is known to have been used by anyone but the leader himself.
Kim Jong Il’s first trip abroad on the train as leader came in 2000, six years after his father’s death. It’s now been six years since Kim Jong Il’s death.
The heavily armored train’s most important feature might be 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.
For Kim Jong Un’s predecessors, trips were often secret until after they ended.
Experts still couch their estimates of how many times North Korean leaders have traveled abroad because some trips may still remain secret. The Chinese and North Korean media aren’t much help. They are state run and follow the directives of their respective ruling parties.
Kim Jong Il’s trip to China in 2003, for example, wasn’t announced until days later. When he took the train across Russia to visit President Dmitry Medvedev in 2009, local photographers were reportedly banned from documenting the journey through their country. Whole towns in Siberia were instructed to stay indoors and keep off the streets until the train safely passed.
This journey showed how much times have changed.
News of the train’s arrival in Beijing on Monday broke in large part because regular people posted cellphone videos online. Japanese media quickly picked up the videos along with fresh scenes of heavy security and a long motorcade arriving at a state guesthouse.
That unleashed media stakeouts all over town.
In the age of social media and ubiquitous camera phones, it seems discretion is getting harder everywhere.
Talmadge is the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @EricTalmadge