When Western spies look for signs that Kim Jong-un is leaving on an overseas trip, they attempt to locate his dark green train.
The North Korean leader seldom opts to use his country’s ageing fleet of planes, instead relying on the bullet-proof carriages that have been favoured by Pyongyang for decades to carry him on rare ventures out of the country.
Kim’s slow-moving trains, always painted in a distinctive green hue, offer a luxurious setting for his travels.
On Tuesday, a train matching the same description was being used to transport him to Russia for an anticipated meeting with Vladimir Putin, state media showed.
Inside, the North Korean leader was expected to be travelling in considerable comfort.
Accounts of journeys taken by North Korean leaders have detailed crates of Bordeaux and Burgundy wines and live lobsters stowed onboard for chefs to prepare gourmet meals, while guests are entertained by young female singers, introduced as “lady conductors”.
What is known about the trains comes from intelligence reports and accounts from officials permitted to travel on board.
There are believed to be around 90 heavily armoured carriages at Kim’s disposal.
When travelling overseas the trains are normally made up of between 10 and 15 cars, to house his entourage of security guards, medical staff and advisers.
Each carriage used is heavily armoured, meaning the trains move extremely slowly as they chug along the country’s archaic rail network, limited to a sluggish top speed of 25 miles per hour.
But the interiors appear to be luxurious, with one video from a few years ago showing a carriage lined with pink sofas, as Kim travelled to China.
His office, containing a desk, a chair and a map of China and the Korean Peninsula, was shown in the same footage.
Other similar releases have shown a car with a long, white table that Kim and his father have both used to hold court.
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.
Reports by foreign officials have also highlighted the opulence of the trains.
“It was possible to order any dish of Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and French cuisine,” Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian official who travelled with Kim’s father during a trip through Russia 20 years ago, wrote in a 2002 book titled “Orient Express”.
In that train, cases of Bordeaux and Beaujolais wine were available, as were live lobsters, according to the book.
Kim, who has a more robust figure than his predecessor, is rumoured to prefer Swiss cheese, Cristal champagne and Hennessy cognac.
In addition to their role in foreign ventures, trains have also been at the centre of state propaganda around the ruling Kim family’s embarking on long journeys by rail to meet ordinary North Koreans across the country.
Last year, state television showed Kim in a white train car touching corn leaves and discussing corn crops while smoking a cigarette, saying the North Korean leader was hoping for a “communist utopia” while on an “exhaustive train tour”.
North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, Kim’s grandfather, travelled abroad by train regularly during his rule until his death in 1994.
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