By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korean leader Kim Jong Un used a dark green train to travel to Russia, state media showed on Tuesday, relying on a slow but specialised form of transportation that the reclusive country's leaders have used for decades.
Compared to the country's ageing fleet of planes, bulletproof trains offer a safer and more comfortable space for a large entourage, security guards, food and amenities, and a place to discuss agendas ahead of meetings, experts say.
Since becoming leader in late 2011, Kim has used a train to visit China and Vietnam, as well as his previous trip to Russia to meet Putin in 2019.
WHAT'S INSIDE THE TRAINS?
It is unclear how many trains North Korean leaders have used over the years, but Ahn Byung-min, a South Korean expert on North Korean transportation, said multiple trains were needed for security reasons.
Ahn said those trains have 10 to 15 carriages each, some of which are used only by the leader, such as a bedroom, but others carry security guards and medical staff.
The country's archaic rail network means the luxurious train only travels up to 40 kilometres per hour (25mph).
"Even if it is slow, train is safer and more comfortable than anything else for a North Korean leader," Ahn said.
A video released in 2018 showed Kim meeting with top Chinese officials in a wide train car ringed with pink couches.
The video also showed the carriage housing Kim's office, with a desk and chair, and a map of China and the Korean peninsula on the wall behind it.
In 2020, state TV footage showed Kim riding a train to visit a typhoon-hit area, offering a glimpse of a carriage decorated with flower-shaped lighting and zebra-printed fabric chairs.
In the 2002 book "Orient Express", Russian official Konstantin Pulikovsky described a three-week journey to Moscow by Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un's father and predecessor.
In that train, cases of Bordeaux and Beaujolais wine were flown in from Paris, as were live lobsters, according to the book.
The elder Kim's train included one residential carriage, the so-called "headquarters" carriage, a restaurant, several car transportation carriages with two armoured Mercedes, former Russian diplomat Georgy Toloraya wrote in NK News, an outlet specialising in North Korea, recalling Kim's visit by rail to Russia in 2001.
Toloraya said the train had a satellite communication system and all the carriages were connected.
The wheels of Kim Jong Un's train must be changed in Russia or a North Korean station bordering Russia, because the two countries use different rail gauges, Ahn said.
WHO USES THE TRAINS?
North Korea's founding leader, Kim Il Sung, Kim's grandfather, travelled abroad by train regularly during his rule until his death in 1994.
Kim Jong Il relied solely on trains to visit Russia three times, including a 20,000 km trip to Moscow in 2001.
The train was "a sweet home and an office," for Kim Jong Il, state television has said.
He died of a reported heart attack in late 2011 while on one of his trains and the carriage is on display at his mausoleum.
The train has been at the centre of state propaganda around the ruling Kim family's embarking on long train journeys to meet ordinary North Koreans across the country.
Last year, state television showed Kim Jong Un in a white train car touching corn leaves and discussing corn crops while smoking a cigarette, saying Kim hoping for a "communist utopia" is on a "exhaustive train tour".
(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Josh Smith and Gerry Doyle)