On Monday, a dark green train with yellow trim was spotted at the border where Russia, China and North Korea meet. Its distinctive coloring identified it as a one-of-a-kind vehicle that runs with one passenger in mind: the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un.

Kim rarely leaves North Korea. And when he does, he rarely flies, preferring to take an armored train, just like his father and grandfather did before him. This time, Kim is believed to be on his way to Russia for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — his first known trip outside North Korea in more than four years.

A slow-moving bulletproof fortress

So what do we know about Kim's locomotive fortress? Well, for one, it's gargantuan.

In 2009, the Chosun media outlet in South Korea published details on the train used by Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, and estimated that its engine pulled around 90 cars behind it. More recent estimates of Kim Jong Un's train suggest that number may have dropped to 21. Some reports also suggest that two other trains travel with Kim's main train: one to check the tracks ahead, and another to carry his security entourage.

The train contains bedrooms and conference rooms used for official state business. Few images of its interior have been released, but one video released in 2018 showed Kim meeting with top Chinese officials in a wide train car ringed with pink couches.

Weighed down by bulletproof siding, the train moves at a glacial pace compared to most modern trains. It's estimated that it only moves at a speed of around 28 miles per hour on tracks in North Korea, and can increase its speed when it operates on China's rail network.

All in the family

The Kim family's penchant for traveling by train started with Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, who was once gifted a train carriage by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. His son, Kim Jong Il, was famously afraid of flying, and preferred to travel by train. In 2010, his former bodyguard told South Korean media that the North Korean leader was afraid of being shot down by his enemies if he traveled by plane. Kim died of heart failure the following year – and North Korean state media said that he was on a train when he passed away.

Kim Jong Un, the current leader of North Korea, has continued the family tradition. In 2019, he traveled around 4,500 kilometers through China in the armored train to reach Vietnam for his second face-to-face meeting with then-President Donald Trump. The journey took two-and-a-half days.

A repeat summit

This week, Kim seems poised to arrive at his summit with Putin in similar fashion. South Korean media have reported that Kim left Pyongyang by train late on Sunday, and that a large security presence had descended on the train station in the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, in anticipation of Kim's arrival.

Details about the potential meeting between Kim and Putin are scarce, but the Kremlin has confirmed that Kim will be arriving for an official visit. Over the weekend, Jon Finer, the chief deputy national security advisor for President Joe Biden, suggested that North Korea could be in the position of selling weapons to Russia for use in its war in Ukraine. For his part, Kim may be looking for much-needed food aid and advanced military technology. Kim and Putin have only met one other time, four years ago in the same Russian city of Vladivostok – then, too, he arrived in his bulletproof train.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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