Kim Jong Un’s Symbolic Train Ride to Rekindle Diplomacy
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be planning a visit to Russia this month for discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The discussions are expected to encompass various issues. Including North Korean arms sales to replenish Russia’s reserves depleted by its conflict in Ukraine.
According to U.S. reports, the city of Vladivostok in Russia’s east is a potential venue for this meeting, echoing their initial encounter in April 2019. Putin is anticipated to attend the annual Eastern Economic Forum, scheduled to run from Sunday to Wednesday. It is hosted by the Far Eastern Federal University.
Kim’s mode of transportation, much like his previous visits, has garnered considerable media attention. The 39-year-old authoritarian leader has occasionally chosen to travel by plane, a departure from his father’s flight-averse tendencies. However, he has also embraced his family’s symbol of power. The armoured train—for pivotal meetings with leaders such as Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019.
In contrast, Putin has increasingly favoured secure train travel since his decision to invade Ukraine in early 2022. This shift in transportation choice was revealed by Gleb Karakulov, a defector from Putin’s secretive elite security service.
Kim Jong Un’s previous rendezvous with Putin involved an arduous day-long train ride that commenced in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, and traversed the country’s ageing railways along the eastern coastline before crossing into Russia.
Vladivostok: The Probable Venue for Kim and Putin’s Meeting
During the course of his diplomatic engagements with Xi and Putin, Kim alternated between train and plane travel. For meetings with Xi in 2018 and 2019, he employed both his train and a private Russian-made jet. In June 2018, he even borrowed a Chinese Boeing 747 for his first summit with Trump due to safety concerns with his own jet. For his second encounter with Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, Kim opted for his train, embarking on a two-and-a-half-day journey.
These meetings with world leaders revolved around high-stakes diplomacy, with Kim attempting to leverage North Korea’s nuclear capabilities for much-needed economic benefits. However, these diplomatic efforts ultimately faltered after the Hanoi summit.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted North Korea to close its borders in early 2020, Kim has refrained from in-person meetings with foreign leaders.
A potential second trip to Russia by Kim could signify a resurgence of summit-driven diplomacy, possibly followed by a visit to China for discussions with Xi, according to Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea.
In contrast, Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, undertook around a dozen foreign trips during his 17-year rule, primarily to China, all by train. North Korean state media reported Kim Jong Il’s demise during a train journey in 2011, citing a heart attack as the cause.
An account from 2002 by Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian official who accompanied Kim Jong Il on a three-week trip to Moscow a year earlier, offered insights into the train’s luxurious interior, which included cases of expensive French wine and lavish feasts featuring live lobsters and pork barbecue.
The Armored Train: A Mobile Fortress for Kim’s Security
Notably, the train’s paramount feature lies in security measures. South Korean media reports suggest that North Korea maintains 90 special train carriages. Moreover, operates three trains simultaneously during a leader’s travels—a reconnaissance train to assess the rail conditions. In addition to the leader’s train and immediate entourage, and a trailing train for additional personnel. These trains are equipped with advanced communication systems. Including flat-screen TVs for effective communication and briefings.
A life-size replica of one of the train’s carriages is on permanent display at a mausoleum located on the outskirts of Pyongyang, where Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung, rest in state.
It remains to be seen whether Kim Jong Un will opt for a train ride to Russia once again, given his increasing comfort with air travel. In May 2018, he made history by flying to the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian for his second meeting with Xi. Marking the first time in 32 years that a North Korean leader had travelled abroad by air. The last public flight abroad had been Kim Il Sung’s trip to the Soviet Union in 1986.
Educated in Switzerland for several years, Kim Jong Un is believed to have had considerable exposure to air travel during his teenage years. Since ascending to power upon his father’s death in December 2011. Kim has occasionally undertaken flights within North Korea. His official plane was a modified version of the Soviet-made IL-62. It bears the name “Chammae-1,” derived from North Korea’s national bird, the goshawk.
Anticipation Builds: Will Kim and Putin Meet Again?
South Korean media reports indicate that the plane can achieve a maximum speed of 900 kilometres (560 miles) per hour and carry approximately 200 passengers. While its maximum flight range extends to about 9,200 kilometres (5,700 miles), it has reportedly not flown that far. State media noted that Kim used Chammae-1 for activities. Such as overseeing Air Force drills and inspecting construction projects in Pyongyang.
Despite the speculation surrounding a potential meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic
Forum, Kim’s preference for one-on-one summits during rare foreign visits raises questions about the feasibility of such an encounter. Nevertheless, Kim’s and Putin’s interests align amid their separate challenges. Expectations for a meeting are growing.