Inside Kim's armoured train

Inside Kim’s armoured train: The 90-carriage locomotive – complete with pink sofas – that is ‘carrying North Korea’s dictator to summit with Putin’… at 37mph

  • Kim is travelling to Russia to meet with president Vladimir Putin this week
  • Rather than flying, however, he is said to be on board a huge, slow moving train 

Kim Jong Un is believed to be en route to Russia ahead of a summit with Vladimir Putin that has sparked western concern about a potential arms deal that could bolster Moscow’s on-going war in Ukraine.

A brief statement on the Kremlin’s website said the visit is at Putin’s invitation and would take place ‘in the coming days’.

It also was reported by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, which said the leaders would meet – without specifying when and where.

Reports in South Korean – citing intelligence sources – said the North Korean dictator is currently in transit, travelling from North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang to Russia, likely the eastern city of Vladivostok where Putin arrived today.

However, unlike most modern-day diplomatic meetings, it is understood that Kim is not travelling by private jet, but rather on his very own heavily armoured train.

Kim Jong Un (left) is believed to be en route to Russia ahead of a summit with Vladimir Putin, with reports suggesting he is travelling on his own armoured train (pictured)

As is the case with many aspects of North Korea, little is known about Kim’s train itself, and few outside the country have ever stepped on board. But thanks to photographs from state media, accounts from the select few who have travelled on it and intelligence reports, we do at least have some idea. Pictured: Kim waves a hat as his train leaves Khasan train station, Russia, 2019

A green train with yellow trimmings, resembling one used by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on his previous travels, is seen steaming by a slogan which reads ‘Towards a new victory’ on the North Korea border with Russia and China from China’s Yiyanwang Three Kingdoms viewing platform in Fangchuan, Monday, September 11, 2023

Pictured: A train believed to be Kim’s is seen en route to Russia as it passes near China today

Kim has rarely left his isolated country since he assumed power in 2011 following the death of his father Kim Jong Il, and has not done so at all since before the pandemic.

When he has, he tends to use the luxuriously decorated racing-green locomotive to make state visits to neighbouring China and Russia as an alternative to air travel.

As is the case with many aspects of North Korea, little is known about Kim’s train itself, and few outside the country have ever stepped on board.

But thanks to photographs from state media, accounts from the select few who have travelled on it and intelligence reports, we do at least have some idea.

Firstly, we know that it’s slow.

According to reports, Kim’s train has a top speed of 37 miles per hour. (By comparison, across most of the UK trains have a maximum speed of 125mph).

The distance from Pyongyang to Vladivostok is – as the crow flies – slightly less than 430 miles, meaning even if the train could travel in a perfectly straight line at its top speed, the journey between the two would still take around 11 hours and 40 minutes.

Naturally, that is not the case.

Instead, the lumbering train must wind its way through the North Korean hills before crossing the narrow border with Russia and finally navigate around Amur Bay.

A lack of information about North Korea’s rail routes means it’s hard to gauge exactly how long the journey takes, but his last journey to Vladivostok took 20 hours.

Kim is seen onboard the train, surrounded by cameras, while speaking with Chinese officials in 2018

Kim Jong Un waves at the Dong Dang railway station in Dong Dang, Vietnam, on March 2, 2019

A train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives for a planned meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, Russia, on April 24, 2019

The vagaries around Kim’s arrival, as well as the time and date of his meeting with Putin, suggests this has been accounted for.

From what we know of the train, it is easy to understand why it’s so sluggish.

According to a 2009 article from South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, which cited intelligence reports, the train has up to 90 rail cars in total.

What’s more, each of these cars is understood to be heavily armoured.

Georgy Toloraya – a Russian diplomat who travelled with Kim in 2001, wrote at the time Russian technicians had found armoured sheets beneath the two main rail cars used by the North Korean dictator for accommodation and official purposes.

The technicians, who carried out an inspection of the train, also found the cars originated from the Soviet era, but had been heavily modified at some point since.

Some cars are also believed to have been designed to carry vehicles. Toloraya later wrote that two armoured Mercedes were carried on the train when he travelled on it. 

This suggests a host of other weighty cargo could be carried in the 90 carriages.

On board, Kim also enjoys impressive luxury.

Pictures released by state media show it is complete with pink leather sofas, dark wood panelling and – it is understood – plentiful supplies of alcohol. 

There are also long tables for meetings and flat screen monitors.

One of the most detailed accounts of the train comes from Konstantin Pulikovsky, another Russian official who told the tale of his trip across Russia’s Far East with Kim Jong Il in a book called ‘Orient Express.’

In the book, Pulikovsky describes a gourmet menu with a vast variety of food.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un leaves a train carriage after arriving at the border station of Khasan, Primorsky Krai region, Russia, on April 24, 2019

Kim Jong Un, center, waves as he was given a send-off at a train station in Beijing, 2018

North Korea’s security officers wait for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un near the train as he leaves Russia, at the main train station in Vladivostok, Russia, on April 26, 2019

‘It was possible to order any dish of Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and French cuisine,’ Pulikovsky wrote, adding the train was stacked with cases of Bordeaux and Beaujolais, which had been flown in from Paris especially, and live lobsters.

He also recalled that travellers on the train were kept entertained by young female singers, who were introduced as ‘lady conductors’.

In addition to its massive weight, the fortress-like train brings with it a vast security operation that makes most presidential motorcades seem understated.

The Chosun Ilbo article says that around 100 security agents are sent ahead of the train to sweep stations for potential threats.

Meanwhile, the power is turned off at all stations it passes through to prevent other trains from moving, bringing other rail routes to a temporary halt.

Kim’s train also receives support from a logistical support group that includes Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopters and Il-76 transport planes.

What’s more, another decoy train is sent ahead of Kim’s to make sure the tracks are safe, while a third train brings up the rear, bringing support personnel and bodyguards, while also keeping a look out for any possible attacks. 

It is also understood that Kim had 20 stations built across the country that only his train can use.

Travelling by rail does bring its benefits for someone like Kim Jong Un, however.

His father was reportedly afraid of flying, and his grandfather – North Korean founder Kim Il Sung – also used a train to conduct international travel.

Unlike planes, trains can’t be spotted with flight-tracking data or radar, and most of Kim’s rail journeys have been announced after he arrived at his destination.

The special armored train, by which North Korean leader Kim Jong Il travelled from the Far East to Moscow across Russia, is pictured during a brief stopover at the local railway station July 31, 2001 in Novosibirsk, Russia

In stark contrast to Kim’s travel arrangements, Putin was pictured riding in a helicopter during his working trip to Russia’s far eastern Primorsky region

That being said, for some high-profile summits – such as the 2018 meeting with former US President Donald Trump – Kim used a Air China-operated Boeing 747.

That same year, he also used a North Korean aircraft to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the city of Dalian.

Meanwhile, in stark contrast to Kim’s travel arrangements, Putin was pictured riding in a helicopter during his working trip to Russia’s far eastern Primorsky region.

The pair last met in April 2019, in Vladivostok, where Kim arrived after a 20 hour journey. The train also took him to Beijing, and to Vietnam in 2019.

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