May 19, 2019
May 19, 2019
Like father, like son: a train journey across Siberia with Kim Jong Il
Like father, like son: a train journey across Siberia with Kim Jong Il
Former Russian diplomat Georgy Toloraya remembers the late leader's long-distance rail travel
February 25th, 2019

Month in Review

Kim Jong Il, unlike his son, suffered from aerophobia and flew only in a rare occasions and for short trips, preferring trains (he even died in one).

He may have picked up the habit from his father, Kim Il Sung, who regarding traveling by train as a privilege reserved for the highest-echelon leaders of communist countries.

In fact, North Korea, with its short distances, does not have the tradition of long-distance rail travel. The model was the USSR, spanning across 11 time zones, and in its early days railroads were the only communication line between different parts of the vast country.

Since the first railroad was built in 1825, Russian emperors, as well as high-ranking officials, used it for travel and inspection purposes. They traveled on so-called “special [liternyi, originally meaning sleeper car] trains” in style.

As a result, long-distance overnight rail travel appears in several great works of Russian literature, for example, “Anna Karenina,” “Doctor Zhivago,” etc. Leo Trotsky roamed the frontlines of the Russian Civil War in his armored train, and Stalin continued this tradition.

And when this author used to travel from North Korea to Moscow in the early days of my service at the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang I spent seven days onboard the train, crossing Manchuria and then Siberia in a comparatively comfortable conditions and with good company.

North Korea, with its short distances, does not have the tradition of long-distance rail travel

In 1950s Stalin presented Kim Il Sung with his first “special carriage,” which can now be seen in North Korean museums, used for his travels across Eurasia. Unlike his son, however, Kim Il Sung did not hate planes (a special “salon variant” IL-62M was delivered from the USSR) and he used them several times — for example when he flew to Moscow for meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1986.

Kim Jong Il, on the other hand, loved traveling by rail — and developed a whole theory of why it was the best way to see a country.

Kim Jong Un departed for Hanoi on Saturday onboard the family train | Photo: KCNA

He told his Russian hosts, for example, that if you travel by plane you do not see anything of the country but the airports and the capital, while traveling by train gives one the opportunity to see the expanses and the cities, the nature, and to stop and set the foot on the ground, to see reality with one’s own eyes, and to meet and to talk with the locals.

When President Putin invited Kim Jong Il to Russia following their first meeting in Pyongyang in July 2000, transportation and logistics issues were quick to emerge, and the North Koreans made it clear that their leader could only travel by train.

When the time of the visit was set for 2001, Kim Jong Il’s train passed several test rides from Tumangang-Khasan station to Ussuriisk (about 248 km), which at first took about 6 hours. The wheel-carriages had to be changed at Khasan station, as Russia and North Korea have different gauges (1520 mm in Russia and 1435 mm in North Korea.) 

There were several technical problems, such as excessive heat on the brakes, though soon all were solved and the train traveled at high speed of around 90 km an hour.

The North Koreans made it clear that their leader could only travel by train

Typically the media refers to Kim’s train as “armored” (producing allusions to the revolutionary armored trains of the past).

However, Russian technicians, inspecting the train, concluded that there were only armored sheets beneath the floor of the two main cars (official and residential). They also found out that the carriages had Soviet origin, though were almost certainly modernized later (some rumors said with the help of Koreans in Japan).

Kim Jong Il’s train included one residential carriage, the so-called official “HQ” carriage, a restaurant, several car-transportation carriages (with two armored Mercedes), and several carriages for the entourage and staff.

The Russian hosts mostly saw the inside of the “HQ” carriage. It was very comfortable but not luxurious, and was equipped with facilities quite advanced for that time. For example, it had two big LED screens used for playing films, a GPS location and route tracker, and data about the places we passed — on the economy, names of the governors, and other information.

The train had a satellite communication system and all the carriages were connected. Each Korean carriage contained five compartments (Russians have nine).

Kim was accompanied by several singers and actors, likely from the Mansudae ensemble, who performed for the guests. They also knew Russian songs, whose lyrics Kim Jong Il knew from his early childhood.

The author (second from the left) with Kim Jong Il during his 2001 visit to Russia | Photo: Georgy Toloraya

The food for Kim and his guests was delivered from Pyongyang by plane (sometimes peculiar dishes were on offer, including giant abalones and donkey meat,) as well as the “Russian Standard” vodka and Bordeaux wine the late leader was so fond of.

Of course, the Koreans paid special attention to security. Two Russian cars carried about fifty Russian security staff, including snipers and other armed agents, who were responsible for security during stops in several cities.

Security also included an “advance locomotive,” traveling about seven minutes ahead of the main train (it once encountered a concrete slab on the rails — the train had to urgently stop while it was removed.)

The food for Kim and his guests was delivered from Pyongyang by plane

Otherwise there were no security issues, though in many cases the journey prompted disapproval from the local population and numerous mocking articles in Russian press.

The security was, if anything, excessive: many local commuter trains were cancelled before and after the transit of the Kim Jong Il’s train. The timing was not ideal: the North Korean leader’s visit came during peak “dacha commuting” time, when Russians travel from cities to their country houses, and the trip prompted a lot of criticism as a result. 

There were also delays in common transportation, and following this experience the Russian side was wary of the prospect of a repeat journey. During later journeys to Russia, Kim Jong Il didn’t travel further than Siberia — and only for a few days in territories with a scarce population and not much traffic.

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: Georgy Toloraya

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