In a rare overseas visit, North Korean supremo Kim Jong Un has gone to Russia for a historic summit with President Vladimir Putin in the backdrop of the ongoing Ukraine war amidst rumours of an arms deal. The exact purpose of the visit has not been revealed but Jon Finer, the chief deputy national security advisor for US President Joe Biden, has suggested that North Korea could be looking to sell weapons to Russia for use in its war in Ukraine. On the other hand, North Korea could be looking for much-needed food aid and advanced military technology.
Most remarkably, Kim has chosen to undertake this over 1,100 km long journey from Pyongyang to Vladivostok in an armoured train taking nearly 20 hours, instead of flying. They even took the trouble of a long stopover at the Russian border to switch to wheels that would fit Russian railway tracks of a different gauge.
A long family tradition of train travel
Both his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung had been travelling to foreign countries by armoured trains, including trips to Beijing, Moscow and Eastern Europe. His father’s round trip (2001) to Moscow had taken about three weeks! His grandfather’s travelling in an armoured train or virtually living in the train could be understood. First, they did not have reliable civilian aircraft and he feared that the plane could be shot down. That gave him aerophobia, a fear of flying. Second, he had a morbid fear of assassination elsewhere too. The railcars used by Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung are now on display at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, where both leaders’ bodies lie in state.
But Kim Jong Un has no such fear of flying. He has previously travelled by a luxurious private jet (a Soviet-made long-range Ilyushin-62, named Chammae-1 after the national bird of North Korea) to China and Singapore. Some reports say that though the plane did fly to Singapore, it was actually used as a decoy and the security-obsessed Kim flew in an Air China 747 instead provided by Beijing. He also has a Ukrainian Antonov-148. North Korea’s Central News Agency had released the Il-62’s photo in 2015. He is also believed to have studied under a changed identity in Switzerland in the 1990s. Still, when in power, he preferred to travel by train once (2019) to Russia, four times to China, and once (2023) to Vietnam to meet Donald Trump, a nearly 60-hour-long trip.
Notable features of the armoured train
It is a dark olive green train emblazoned with golden-yellow trim and a metallic paint light green-grey top, similar in looks to the trains used by his father and grandfather. It has been christened ‘Taeyangho’, meaning sun, apparently in a symbolic reference to the country’s founder, his grandfather. The train is nicknamed in Western media as ‘Moving Fortress’. It has the usual complement of satellite communication, fully-equipped offices and conference rooms replete with flat-screen TVs. Other specialized equipment including weaponry that it must necessarily be carrying remains a military secret.
It is believed that a state factory in Pyongyang has produced six identical trains of 15-21 railcars each, the purpose being to confuse reconnaissance and potential attackers. According to a 2009 report by the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, it is believed that his train is preceded by a reconnaissance train that looks for sabotage and track safety etc. Another train has a heavily armed security component. It is believed that the armour protection is not just on the sides and top but also at the bottom to protect it from explosions of buried charges.
Due to its massive weight owing to the heavy armour plating, it is an agonizingly slow-moving train by modern standards with a top speed of just 59.5 km/h despite its electric engine. Even steam-engine trains in my childhood moved faster than that at about 80 km/h. Yet, they endure it for security reasons.
Skewed reporting in the media
In reporting the matter, most media outlets have focussed essentially on the luxuries available on the train and the word ‘luxurious’ is present in all reports. A 2002 book ‘Orient Express’ by Russian Konstantin Pulikovsky recounting the 2001 trip of his father has been dug out from nowhere. He speaks of beautiful on-board lady conductors singing for the amusement of the leaders. The hint of decadence is obvious. He also wrote that it was possible to order any dish of Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and French cuisine and that live lobsters were taken to train stations along the route, and cases of Bordeaux and Burgundy red wines were delivered. Even if this is true, it is ridiculous. What is so great about fresh lobster and wine on the train; One could carry them even in luxury cars. And, there is nothing so out-of-the-world about all-white conference rooms, dining cars, sleeping quarters, pink leather chairs and ivory-coloured curtains. The world has had its fair share of luxurious train travel. Those who have any doubt may have a look at our own luxury trains like Maharajas’ Express, Palace on Wheels, the Deccan Odyssey, Golden Chariot, Royal Orient, and Heritage on Wheels etc. on the Internet, which would make Kim’s train blush in embarrassment. Focusing on luxury in reporting is absolutely third-rate agenda-driven journalism intended only to project Kim as a debauchee.
Most outlets have reported it as a private train. This is wrong. It is not his private property. It is reserved for his exclusive official use. That does not make it into a private train.
Security is the paramount consideration
What makes a train safer for Kim? There is a reason for it. Travelling by train employs the same logic under which several countries have made train-mobile ICBMs (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles), such as the Soviet RT-23 Molodets. The location of fixed missile silos can always be found by intelligence and though they are made to withstand nuclear strikes nearby, one can never be sure about damage to delicate electronics. Thus there is always an element of doubt about the survivability of a land-based silo. Trains, on the other hand, can travel anywhere along that country’s rail network, making their position unpredictable for intelligence, and can hide from satellite surveillance in tunnels. The moment tensions rise, train-mobile missiles can be mobilized moving across the country and thus ensuring their survivability. The USA had also planned a Peacekeeper Rail Garrison for its heaviest ICBM, the LGM-118 Peacekeeper. However, the missile itself was retired prematurely. China tested the system in 2016 for its DF-41 ICBM and North Korea in 2021.
In case of an attack, a train is inherently safer than a civilian aircraft which are, by design, not as agile as fighter aircraft. It is difficult for a civilian aircraft under attack to change its course quickly like a fighter jet. As such, they are sitting ducks. More importantly, they generally go down with a single strike. A train, on the other hand, provides inherent versatility against surface-to-surface missiles that move on fixed ballistic trajectories and cannot change course. The route and schedule of the train can be kept a secret and changed at will midway. Moreover, it would not be known exactly in which carriage Kim could be travelling. Air-to-surface missiles have small warheads and cannot damage more than one carriage at a time. In any case, it is difficult for aircraft to venture into enemy territory. Finally, there are armoured Mercedes-Benz S-class cars and a helicopter on board. If the situation got really bad, Kim could escape from them.
Moreover, VIP aircraft could be attacked by SAM (surface-to-air missiles) and drones. Since they fly on a fixed course, it is easy to attack them. It is strongly suspected that Putin’s arch-enemy Wagner chief Prigozhin’s Embraer aircraft was attacked by one or more drones on a suicidal mission, which simply collided with it mid-air leading to its fall. The advantage of drones is that they can be sacrificed and easily disowned. A drone can penetrate enemy airspace relatively easily and even if it is shot down, little evidence would be forthcoming from the debris. It is always possible to deny its ownership—called plausible denial.
To call the train bulletproof as most of the media outlets have done is sheer illiteracy and an outright insult to intellect. Kim is not geared for defence against an assassination attempt by bullets. Preparing for that is child’s play. He has prepared for a regular military assault with heavy weapons or an aerial attack. Even aircraft can be made bulletproof. Many fighter jets especially ground attack aircraft such as the A-10 Thunderbolt that are obliged to fly low amidst heavy flak from the ground have titanium/alloy bullet-resistant “bathtubs” protecting the pilot. It can protect from .50 heavy machine gun fire and 23/37 mm exploding shells. There are reasons to believe that Kim’s train can withstand much heavier explosive punishment.
Armoured trains have military uses too
Before tanks and ground attack aircraft (the formidable combination of the Panzer tanks and Junker ‘Stuka’ aircraft) became available in sufficiently large numbers, Germans used armoured trains as mobile artillery to support infantry attacks and as well as defences, aiming at targets from advanced positions; flank protection of units operating parallel to railway lines; guarding transport of troops and supplies; and reconnaissance along the tracks especially of railway facilities like bridges, tunnels and stations.
The Soviets had 63 of them for similar uses. During the Nazi invasion, armoured trains were often assigned the role of “suicide trains”. Frequently, they single-handedly covered the retreat of Soviet units, in order to delay the enemy for at least a few hours. In case, rail tracks were destroyed thereby stranding the trains, they too were scuttled by the crew. They were also used for the defence of cities like Tallinn and Leningrad. Sevastopol was defended for eight months by the ‘Zheleznyakov’ armoured train, which used to hide in a tunnel until the tunnel collapsed under relentless German aerial bombing in June 1942.
In March 2022, it was reported with a video that the Russians have again employed an armoured train of eight railcars and two diesel engines in the invasion of Ukraine, arriving in the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol after having departed from a yard on the Crimean Peninsula. Another train was seen in June 2022. Earlier, armoured trains were used in Chechnya (1999-2000) and Georgia (2008) also.
Also, exercise in image-building
For Kim Jong Un, as a former South Korean intelligence official Nam Sung-wook told Reuters in 2019, travel in such extraordinary trains is also a unique style statement. It helps him in ‘putting on a big show’ and in projecting an image that he wants to project. Precisely for this reason of image-building, we find official photos released of military honour guards, red carpets up to the train; Kim greeting each one of the train attendants personally on the platform before boarding; a ramp to the railcar’s door; Kim waving from the door as the train departs; and crowds of people in dark suits and colourful dresses waving flowers and flags. In 2020, state TV footage had shown Kim riding a train to visit a typhoon-hit area. Last year, the state television had shown him in a white train car touching corn leaves and discussing corn crops while smoking a cigarette, claiming that Kim was on an ‘exhaustive train tour’, hoping for a ‘communist utopia’.