'North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, center, leaves a hotel in Dalian, China, May 3.'
May 4, 2010
A 19th century train in the 21st century
Ahn Byung-min, Director of the Center for Northeast Asia & North Korea Transport Studies, The Korea Transport Institute
A train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-il crossed the Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge over the Amnok (Yalu) River on Monday morning. This marks his fifth visit to China via the train since 2000. Kim’s overseas tours by train have been called a “19th century train journies in the 21st century.” There does not seem to be any precise determination as to why he insists on going by train, which is slower than an airplane and less comfortable than a car.
But Kim seems to have a special attachment to the train. He is said to have expressed displeasure at the train used by his father Kim Il-sung for field instruction, calling its facilities humble and noisy. It is also said by some that he blamed himself for a lack of filial piety for not providing the elderly leader with a more convenient train, and that he prepared his father the newest model of train a year later. Hu Yaobang, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, is said to have praised the new train as a “traveling office” when Kim Il-sung visited China in 1982.
The train Kim uses is comprised of about 12 to 13 cars. Engines are connected to the front and back, and Kim has six cars for his exclusive use, while another six to seven are for his entourage. Kim’s cars are bullet and bombproof, and include cars in which he can hold conferences and meetings, work and sleep, as well as special cars for attendants and auxiliary use cars. The remaining cars are configured with the goal of transporting exclusive automobiles, supplying power, and carrying ordinary attendants. The train for this latest China visit reportedly consists of seventeen cars, more than usual. This presents the possibility that Kim is being accompanied by another figure worthy of using his own car, i.e. a successor, or that an additional car was set up with equipment to provide medical treatment for a chronic illness.
Kim’s train uses diesel engines to prevent a sudden power outage while traveling within North Korea. Outside the borders, however, his train is towed by the latest electrical or diesel locomotive from the nation he is visiting.
Over the approximately 1,700km of tracks the train runs between Pyongyang, Dalian and Beijing, countless vistas will appear like mirages before vanishing. Kim’s first visit to China in over four years will be an occasion for sensing tremendous frustration and disparity, like heaven and earth, like ice water and a warm bath. It is also certain to be a journey where, rather than anticipating any package of gifts from China, he will contemplate instead how to set right the serious domestic and international tangle North Korea now faces.