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Kim Jong Il mixes bling, extreme safety on train

The North Korean leader does not take chances when traveling.

May 04, 2010|By John M. Glionna and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Seoul and Beijing — When the "Dear Leader" hits the road for one of his rare trips outside North Korea, he doesn't take chances. And he certainly doesn't take jet planes.

Shrouded in secrecy, excursions like this week's train trip to Beijing have all the markings of Kim Jong Il's eccentric rule: logistics nuanced by enough bling to serve a seven-star hotel, and risk resistance bordering on the obsessive.

On previous trips, there hasn't been just one train, but three. South Korean intelligence reports say the mystery entourage has included two dummy trains to confuse any would-be attacker. This time, Kim is reported to have taken only one.

China typically indulges Kim's insistence on secrecy. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu brushed aside reporters' questions at a briefing Tuesday in Beijing with a curt "there is no new information."

That hasn't prevented South Korean and Japanese media from bird-dogging the train. Camera crews that captured shots of Kim leaving the luxury Furama Hotel in Dalian on Tuesday were briefly detained by police and asked to delete images and video, according to Associated Press Television News, which had personnel detained.

"Since the North Korean regime is a one-man dictatorship, the country is far more concerned about the safety issue than most," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Inter-Korean Relations Studies Program of the Sejong Institute near Seoul.

One tell-all memoir written by a former associate claims that Kim once even banned secretaries from wearing hairpins in his office, fearing they might be used to assassinate him.

On train trips within North Korea, Kim often travels by night to avoid U.S. and South Korean surveillance. The train moves slowly to make sure the tracks are safe.

Such precautions may be justified. In 2004, cables above a line of tracks in North Korea exploded, igniting a train carrying chemicals and fuel oil and claiming 160 lives. Analysts believe the incident was an attempt to assassinate Kim, whose train had traveled through hours earlier.

Kim's train is equipped with conference rooms, an audience chamber and bedrooms, with a pair of Mercedes-Benzes on standby, not to mention satellite phone connections and flat-screen TVs so the leader can be briefed and issue orders.

In the 2002 book "Orient Express," Russian official Konstantin Pulikovsky described Kim's three-week journey to Moscow the previous year.

Cases of Bordeaux and Beaujolais were flown in from Paris, as was live lobster, according to the book. There were also such North Korean specialties as koya, piglet barbecue, and salo, salted and aged pig fat.

Leftovers were boxed up and returned to North Korea.

john.glionna@latimes.com

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Ju-min Park in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report

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