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North Korea

Why a mystery armoured train could hold the key to Kim Jong-un’s rumoured visit to China

Rail has long been the favoured mode of transport for North Korea’s leaders and Monday night’s arrival at Beijing has led to intense speculation that the country’s reclusive leader is making his first trip abroad as leader

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2018, 2:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2018, 11:22pm

The mysterious armoured train that arrived in Beijing on Monday night is one of the main pieces of evidence to support the theory that Kim Jong-un is making a historic visit to China.

While Beijing has yet to confirm Kim is in Beijing, the arrival of the train coupled with reports of heightened security at a state guest house and along the Chinese border with North Korea, all point towards a visit by a senior figure from Pyongyang.

If the train really was carrying the younger Kim it would be his first trip abroad since he succeeded his father in late 2011.

Heavily fortified – and, if rumour is to be believed, luxurious – rail carriages were the favoured mode of transport for the North Korean leader’s father and grandfather.

Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Communist dynasty, used a train as his headquarters during the Korean war, and his heirs have continued to prefer rail over air travel.

The trains are believed to be decked out with conference rooms, bedrooms, and audience chambers, with hi-tech communications such as satellite phones and flat-screen television screens.

It was last seen outside the country in 2011 when Kim Jong-il, the current leader’s father, visited Ulan-Ude in southeastern Russia to meet Dmitry Medvedev, the president at the time.

At the time South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that the elder Kim, who was afraid of flying, rode in a convoy of three trains.

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He travelled in the middle one, with an advance train checking that the tracks were safe and the rear train carrying support personnel.

The train also carried two armoured Mercedes to carry Kim to and from the train.

While few have been able to access these trains, details have been revealed by North Korea state media and by accounts from passengers who have been given a rare glimpse of what happens onboard.

According to the former Russian diplomat Konstantin Pulikovsky, the 22-carriage train Kim took on a trip to Russia in 2011 was well-stocked with luxuries, including live lobsters and fine wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

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North Korea’s official broadcaster has also previously featured images of the trains, detailing carriage floors bulletproofed with iron sheets and a narrow train carriage that appeared to contain Kim Jong-il’s office – complete with glossy wooden floors, a wooden desk and chair, and camel-coloured sofa.

The dictator maintained six of these trains for his personal use, with 19 stations in North Korea that had been solely designed to serve these trains, according to analysis cited by Chosun Ilbo.

The trains usually travel at 60km/h (37mph) and were given enhanced levels of security after a 2004 explosion near North Korea’s border with China that left 160 people dead and 1,300 injured in what was rumoured to have been an assassination attempt on Kim.

Kim had taken numerous trips on these trains, and according to North Korean television, he even died of a heart attack on board one of them.

North Korean leaders rarely leave their country – if the train really was carrying the younger Kim it would be his first trip abroad since he succeeded his father – so its arrival has fuelled speculation ahead of a proposed summit between the younger Kim and US President Donald Trump.

Direct talks between the leaders, planned to take place before a May deadline, had previously stirred talk that China – North Korea’s largest trading partner – was being sidelined as an actor in the Korean peninsula.