On 30 November 2018 a South Korean train crossed the border into North Korea. ‘So what’ – I hear you say – ‘trains cross international borders every day of the week’.

In the first part of this review – Train Travel in North Korea – Trains for the People – I looked at North Korea’s railway system focusing on the infrastructure and domestic and international travel options available for ordinary North Koreans and foreign visitors. In this part of the review I will concentrate on the currently non-operational train line between Pyongyang and Seoul, in South Korea, and train travel by the North’s Leaders, including Kim Jong-un.

A train for no one

Prior to the momentous crossing on 30 November 2018 it had been ten years and two days since the last train crossed the border on its regular short trip to Panmum station which serviced the Kaesong Industrial Park, a joint venture between North and South Korea, about 20kms inside North Korea. The last time a South Korean train ventured further north was in the early 1950s – almost 70 years ago – as which point in time services in both directions were suspended when relationships between the two Korea’s were severed by the Korean War, a war which continues to this day.

The train which crossed the border in November 2018 was carrying neither passengers nor freight but rather was a reconnaissance train sent by the South, and welcomed by the North. Its purpose was to survey part of the North’s train tracks and other infrastructure, much of it – that was not bombed during the Korean War – dating back to Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945. In that period (and indeed well prior to it) Japanese laid tracks, supported by its rolling stock, covered the whole of the Korean Peninsula. Japan viewed the railways as key to expanding its area of influence because of the ease with which military personnel and goods could be transported.

The South’s plan was (and still is) to establish what work is necessary to upgrade the North’s railway system with a view to the reopening of North/South services, to the mutual benefit of both countries.

South Korean train en route to North Korea – 30 Nov 2018 – c Kim Hong-Ji/Pool Photo via AP
South Korean train having just entered North Korea – 30 Nov 2018 – c Kim Hong-Ji/Pool Photo via AP
South Korean soldiers close the border gate after the train passes through to North Korea – 30 November 2018 – c Kim Hong-Ji/Pool Photo via AP

Amazingly, for this jointly agreed trip to take place permission had to be sought from the United Nations and from the US Command within South Korea, the latter of which effectively controls the South Korean area around the DMZ (border).  Permission was granted by both on condition that everything required for the trip – down to bottled water – be brought north and everything not used on the trip be taken back south at the end of the trip. The aim here was to ensure that North Korea did not receive a cent of benefit from the trip.

A few weeks later South Korean officials, relevant external permissions having again been obtained, went north for a ground-breaking ceremony at Panmun Station, near Kaesong, ostensibly to start work on improving the North’s railway system. The ceremony was, of course, purely symbolic, an ‘expression of commitment’, as US led sanctions preclude any work occurring, notwithstanding the desire of both Korea’s that this peaceful and productive engagement should proceed. While representatives from Russia, China and Mongolia who would benefit from a direct rail link with South Korea also attended the ceremony no representatives of any South Korean ally did.

Notwithstanding the desire, indeed need, to upgrade the track and infrastructure a fully functioning line does exist connecting Pyongyang to Seoul (and beyond at both ends) and both sides have the necessary stations, etc in place ready to process passenger and freight trains. A train service could start tomorrow.

On the northern side of the DMZ trains currently terminate at Kaesong about 20kms north of the border with South Korea. In anticipation of the line reopening three new ‘reunification’ stations have been built, and now gather dust, between Kaesong and the border.  One of these, Punmun, was used for about a year when trains from the south came north to service the Kaesong Industrial Park. The Park has been closed since 2008 due to sanctions imposed on North Korea, after it engaged in the testing of nuclear missiles.

These stations, one of which I passed by while in the Kaesong area in September 2018 (Sonha – depicted in my main picture), are somewhat flashier and certainly more modern than the standard country station, mostly built/rebuilt after the Korean War, but some things don’t change and they too are adorned by larger than life pictures of the ever smiling and benevolent Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

Sonha (‘reunification’) station between Kaesong and the border with South Korea
Dorasan Station, South Korea c. Wikipedia

Immediately south of the border, South Korea has the even grander Dorasan Station, again built in anticipation of reunification though unlike its three counterparts in the North there are regular, though controlled, passenger services to this station from Seoul carrying mainly tourists.

As I write this review (July 2019) many eagerly await a long overdue visit to Seoul by Kim Jong-un. What a boost for the future of this line it would be if he were to take his own train south – as he has done to other countries for recent summit meetings. I, along with many commentators, believe that opening the railway connection between the two Koreas would be a significant first step towards a peaceful reunification of the peninsula. If that’s overly optimistic then it would at least afford a fantastic benefit to the South which could transport its goods through the Korean Peninsula to China and Russia and onward via the Trans-Siberian to the rest of Eurasia as well as allowing South Korea easier access to Russia’s vast natural resources  and other desirable imports from elsewhere. It could become what former South Korean president Ms Park Geun-hye called the “Silk Road Express.”

A train for the Leaders

To-day the media is full of reference, mostly derogatory, to Kim Jong-un’s use of (or as often portrayed, indulgence in) his personal train for many of his recent overseas trips. In reality the Kim Dynasty has always had a penchant for train travel, it being each of the three leader’s preferred option for both international and domestic travel down the years. Kim Jong-il, in particular, had a fear of flying so for the limited overseas travel he did most, if not all of it, was by train. Kim Jong–un is understood not to have any such fear and I would proffer that his reasoning for train travel is twofold: Firstly, though not one he would admit to, a desire to emulate his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who the North Koreans still see as a god-like figure and, secondly, for rather more practical reasons i.e. the country does not have sufficient aeroplanes with the necessary range and perhaps reliability to support overseas trips by Kim and his entourage.

7 nyk
Kim Jong-un’s train in Beijing c.KCNA
8 skynews
Guard of Honour awaits the arrival of Kim Jong-un into Beijing c.KCNA
Kim Jong-un alights his train in Beijing c.KCNA

Without doubt Kim would have been rather embarrassed to have had to borrow a plane from China to attend the 2018 summit meeting with President Trump in Singapore.

Many commentators believe Kim Jong-un prefers flying and indeed he has a number of planes at his disposal including the North Korean Air Force’s two known IL-62Ms at least one of which had an internal make-over a few years back and has since been dubbed Air Force Un. The planes are probably more suited to internal flights.

On a tour of the Pyongyang Railway Museum (2018) most of my time was spent listening to guides explain how, over time, the Leaders guided and advised on the development of the country’s trains and railway infrastructure though a not insignificant amount of time was allocated, at the beginning of the tour, to poring over large illuminated maps showing where the great Leaders have travelled by train. The pictures below show international and domestic travel undertaken by Kim Il-sung. I think the first number shown on the right hand side of both pictures indicates the number of trips taken. Accordingly, Kim Il-sung took 106 international and 776 domestic trips by train between 1945 and 1994.

Kim Il-sung international travel 1945-1994 – with the lights gone out over Eastern Europe!
Kim Il-sung domestic travel 1945 -1994

Similar displays show the, more extensive, travel undertaken by Kim Jong-il.

Internationally, trains have been used to transport the leaders as far as Eastern Europe (where Kim Il-sung visited all former communist countries in 1974) and Moscow though most trips have been to China and neighbouring parts of what is today Russia. Of course, as many will know Kim Jong-un has most recently travelled to Hanoi, Beijing and Vladivostok by train.

Domestically the Leaders, including the current Leader, have made extensive use of trains when they go out to the provinces dispensing their wisdom on this, that and everything (on the spot guidance).

The images below which I took from pictures in the Pyongyang Railway Museum show the enthusiastic welcome accorded to Kim Il-sung as he travelled.

Welcome, Kim Il-sung
Welcome, Kim Il-sung
Welcome, Kim Il-sung

While I think these pictures are all taken in North Korea one or more could conceivably have been taken in any of the Eastern Bloc countries he visited. Further and again possible, one or more could have been from a funeral procession. The one thing that can be said for certain is that either domestically or internationally (where he travelled to) and in life or in death he would have received a tumultuous welcome.

Once out and about on the spot guidance and advice was always given, in abundance.

Kim Il-sung dispensing advice to railway workers – extract from a painting in the Pyongyang Railway Museum
Kim Jong-il discussing very important – given the note-taking – matters of state with his heir apparent, Kim Jong-un – extract from picture in the Pyongyang Railway Museum

As I travelled around the North Korean country-side in the late summer of 2018 I could not help noticing the abundance of flowers (the same flower everywhere) along-side roads and along railway tracks right across the country. Our guide informed us that these flowers had been planted by loyal citizens as a summer time treat and reward for Kim Jong-un as he travelled around the country, working tirelessly for the people, as his father and grandfather had done before him.


Structurally, Kim Jong-un’s train and carriages (21 on some recent trips) are bomb and bullet proof which adds considerable weight reducing the maximum speed of the train to  60 kms per hour. While this is fine within North Korea it causes headaches in mainland China, particularly when the train saunters along its main lines at this speed. Additionally, Kim’s train is proceeded and followed by a second and third North Korean train for added security and to accommodate his entourage and stores of gourmet food and top shelf beverages. In March 2018 The New York Times referred to Kim Jong-un’s train as ‘Bulletproof, Slow and Full of Wine’ while referring to the ‘Lobster, wine and ‘lady conductors’’favoured by Kim Jong-il when he travelled by train.

Leaving aside, or not as the case may be, the ‘lady conductors’ the level of comfort and the quality of food afforded to the Kim’s was and is no different than that available to other leaders as they travel, generally in their private jets nowadays.

Suffice it to say that the train I took from Pyongyang to Sinuiju offered neither lobsters nor ‘lady conductors’ of the variety favoured by Kim Jong-il – though, to be honest, I didn’t enquire as to the full range of services available. I also suspect the wine on offer to me would also not have been of the type favoured by Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un.

While there are lots of pictures available showing the exterior of trains used by the leaders few exist of the interior. Below are a few I have been able to locate.

Kim Il-sung’s in his lounge car dispensing advice to his son and others – extract from picture in the Pyongyang Railway Museum
21 Chosun IIbo
Kim Jong-il’s office on wheels – c Korean Central News Agency
Kim Jong-un in discussions with Song Tao, the Chinese foreign affairs minister, in a lounge car on his train – c Korean Central News Agency

When I visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang I saw Kim Jong-il’s office carriage, as depicted above.  Our guide indicated that is was exactly as it was on the 17 December 2011, the day he died of a heart attack, working for his people to the end, on the train.

23 newsweek
Kim jong-il in his trade-mark dark glasses and Anorak – c Newsweek

Accordingly, we were able to see his favoured Apple Mac computer (yes that’s correct, Apple Mac) sitting open on the desk together with his ‘trade-mark’ dark glasses. His equally recognisable anorak was hung close by. Unfortunately pictures were not permitted in the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum where the embalmed bodies of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lie on public display.

On the day before Kim Jong-il died he had signed an order, probably in this carriage on this desk, to supply the people of Pyongyang with pollack and herring on the occasion of the upcoming New Year.

Hardly in the same league as his father, Kim Il-sung, who on the day before his death, also working for his people to the end, signed a reunification-related document to be considered at a forthcoming inter-Korean summit and potential meeting with South Korean President Kim Young Sam. An enlarged copy of his father’s signature appears on a stone monument in the Joint Security Area (JSA), about 50 metres from the border with South Korea. If interested you can read more about that here – The Great Leader’s Last Signature. I am not aware of Kim Jong-il’s pollock and herring order signature having been enlarged or put on display anywhere.

My next North Korea 2018 – General Review  – HERE

Return to the beginning of my North Korea 2018 – General Reviews HERE


12 thoughts on “Train Travel in North Korea – For No One and for the Leaders

  1. For some reason I’m not receiving your replies so I’ll need to look at my settings.
    I understand where you’re coming from as regards their perception of the outside world. Far too much meddling by certain countries if you ask me. I think I’ll leave it there for now. A great blog as usual by the way

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s good to know all these generations of leaders are working tirelessly for their people till the end! Interesting background. It must be really frustrating for China and other countries through which his train passes to have him poke along in his bullet- and bomb-proof train, with his lobster, wine and lady conductors.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Another fascinating glimpse into North Korean life Albert.
    If I’ve got this right, what you’re telling us is that they have nuclear weapons that can travel thousands of miles, but no planes suitable for their great leader to travel abroad in, and trains that can only reach speeds of 60 km per hour. I suppose though, that what it means is more time for lobster, wine and lady conductors. Which would you choose?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes Malc I would say that. Internally the trains, even if they had faster ones, would be limited in speed due to the quality of the track. Naturally, I won’t be drawn on which of lobster, wine or lady conductors I would choose 🙂 As I stated I did not find myself in the position where I had to choose.
      When external people comment on priorities for spending money in NK they look at it from a comfortable Western perspective which would rank many things like food, heating etc higher than missiles. The NK people look at it differently – remember they are still at war – the US refuses to sign a peace agreement. As such the US is seen as an active threat against which they must defend themselves. The US has troops on their border. In the light of things the comment by our guide that ‘we can give up sugar but not security’ makes sense to him and his compatriots. The only thing that stops US belligerence these days is threatening to blow them up. I believe, as do most NK watchers, that NK has no intention of giving up its nuclear missiles.
      In reality the US cares nothing for either North or South Korea and is happy for people to live in poverty and die there so it can satisfy its other regional desires.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s