Kim Jong Un’s ‘Moving Fortress’ North Korea train: What to know

The North Korean leader’s olive green train is equipped with attack weapons and a helicopter for escape.

A luxurious yet battle-ready massive green train has rolled across North Korea’s border into Russia carrying leader Kim Jong Un to a meeting with President Vladimir Putin.

Since taking power in 2011, Kim has made seven international trips and crossed the border into South Korea twice, using a train emblazoned with a yellow strip for the majority of his overseas travel.

Here’s what we know about the North Korean leader’s preferred mode of transport:

Why the train?

From his 2018 trip to Beijing to a 2019 summit in Hanoi with then-US President Donald Trump, Kim has used his train for many high-profile visits.

A love of locomotives runs in the family: Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, was known for his fear of flying, limiting his foreign trips to overland journeys to China and Russia by armoured train.

The elder Kim once took his train from Pyongyang to Moscow, a marathon 20,000km (12,400-mile) round trip in 2001 that took about 24 days.

According to the official North Korean account, Kim Jong Il was on a train for a “field guidance” visit in 2011 when he died of a heart attack.

The carriages used by Kim Jong Il and by his own father and predecessor, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, are now on display at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, where both leaders’ bodies lie in state.

How safe is it?

The Kims reportedly have several almost identical trains made by a factory in Pyongyang.

Nicknamed the “Moving Fortress”, Kim’s current train has bulletproof windows and reinforced walls and floors to protect against explosives, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification.

“It is equipped with attack weapons and a helicopter for escape in case of emergency,” the ministry said.

To bolster onboard security measures, Pyongyang in the past has asked for guards to be deployed along the tracks, as it did for Kim’s Hanoi visit.

How fast is the train?

Because of the weight of all the extra equipment, the train moves at only 55 kilometres per hour (35 miles per hour). It has to haul 90 carriages lined top to bottom with heavy armour along with all the items packed inside.

The Moving Fortress is an excruciatingly slow mode of transport. Kim’s trip to Vietnam to meet Trump was 65 hours. But the train has key advantages over an aircraft, chiefly offering more flexibility in unforeseen circumstances, including attacks.

If an aircraft with Kim on board were attacked, “survival chances are significantly reduced”, said the Unification Ministry. It is also “more challenging to predict train itineraries”.

How luxurious is it?

Images of the train’s interior supplied by the state news agency KCNA have shown Kim sitting with other passengers in long rows of pink leather chairs. Some of its cars are designed to carry luxury vehicles for ground transport at the destination.

Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian official, once travelled on the train with Kim’s father in eastern Russia in 2001. In his book Orient Express, Pulikovsky recounted some of the fare on offer, including fresh lobster, pork barbeque and cases of fine French wine. Young women introduced as “lady conductors” sang songs for the passengers.

“It was possible to order any dish of Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and French cuisine,” Pulikovsky wrote.

Kim Jong Il had several luxurious trains equipped with reception halls, conference rooms and high-tech communication facilities, South Korean media reports said.

North Korea to Russia by train

After departing North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, Kim’s train was reportedly seen in the Russian city of Ussuriysk north of Vladivostok. He then boarded a new locomotive and continued travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Khabarovsk or possibly Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Bloomberg News reported.

The 680km (320-mile)  journey from Pyongyang to Vladivostok takes about 20 hours.

Does Kim ever fly?

Kim, 39, has made seven previous overseas trips: four to China and one each to Russia, Vietnam and Singapore. The latter two were for summits with Trump. He has also crossed the border into South Korea twice.

Unlike his father, he is not scared to fly. He flew on three of these trips – two to China and one to Singapore – and has even been shown at the controls of an aircraft in 2014 state media footage.

His private plane, which flew him to China in 2018, is known as Chammae-1 after the national bird of North Korea, and is a Cold War-era, Russian-made Ilyushin-62.

Analysts question the aircraft’s reliability because of its age and possible maintenance issues.

Plane decoy

The Chammae-1 flew to Singapore in 2018 when Kim was heading to the city to meet Trump – but the North Korean leader was not on board.

Instead, he flew on an Air China 747 provided by Beijing, Pyongyang’s most important ally.

According to the flight tracking website Flightradar24, the plane took off using flight number CA122, a standard designation for the airline’s route from Pyongyang to Beijing. In midair, it changed its call sign to CA061 and headed south.

At the time, analysts suggested China had lent a jet to Kim as a way to assuage his safety concerns and in a bid to ensure it was not sidelined at a summit where Washington-Pyongyang ties looked set to improve.

But Kim and Trump’s rare bout of diplomacy collapsed in 2019 anyway.

Kim waving as he boards his train in Pyongyang
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un departs Pyongyang to visit Russia on September 10, 2023 [KCNA via Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies