The Legacy of Train Diplomacy in North Korea’s Leadership: A Generational Narrative

by Michael Nguyen
North Korea's Train Diplomacy

Located at the periphery of Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, stands an elaborate complex that serves as a living museum: two opulent train carriages, each intended for one of the supreme leaders who preceded the current head of state, Kim Jong Un. These artifacts are part of a larger exhibit at the imposing Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where not only are the train carriages showcased but also the embalmed remains of Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather.

In North Korea, the predilection for train travel among its hereditary rulers spans multiple generations. This is clearly reflected in the grand mausoleum where the aforementioned train carriages—belonging to Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather—are prominently displayed, along with the embalmed bodies of these past leaders.

This prominent positioning of the train carriages in a place dedicated to venerating the leadership underscores their significant role in North Korean governance. Since the inception of the state following the division of the Korean peninsula post the 1950-53 Korean War, trains have been used by North Korean leaders for both domestic and occasional international travel.

A seldom-seen part of North Korea is this mausoleum, which serves as the final resting place for the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and his son Kim Jong Il, who governed from 1948 to 1994 and 1994 to 2011, respectively. Access to this area is highly restricted, navigated through a complex, closely monitored network of moving walkways. These walkways pass through corridors adorned with numerous photos capturing moments from the lives of the two former leaders.

Inside this sanctum, photography is prohibited and speech is scarcely permitted. The interior temperature is maintained at approximately 60 degrees Fahrenheit, likely due to the preservation requirements for the embalmed bodies. Visitors are required to go through a security portal that emits multiple bursts of air to remove any dust particles before entering the inner chambers.

Upon entry, visitors are first directed to view the embalmed bodies of the two former leaders, each enclosed in a transparent sarcophagus. Subsequently, they are led to adjacent rooms housing the historic railway carriages. Previous visits allowed by The Big Big News during the mid-2010s reveal that Kim Jong Il’s train carriage, encased in glass and visible from a designated walkway, appeared like a high-end yet abruptly vacated home office. It featured a comfortable sofa, what seemed to be an early model MacBook, and meticulously arranged documents. A ceramic mug, suggesting the leader’s penchant for tea, was also displayed.

Contrastingly, the train carriage used by Kim Il Sung seemed like a relic from the past, with its furnishings reflecting the 1960s and 1970s. While it featured a grand desk, the space was comparatively minimalistic—a nod, perhaps, to Kim Il Sung’s roots as a revolutionary who existed under spartan conditions.

Intricate maps with tiny illuminated indicators reveal various destinations and stops, both within North Korea and beyond its borders. Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were known to travel extensively by train, the latter reportedly due to his fear of flying.

In sum, the well-preserved train carriages and detailed maps manifest the deep-rooted relationship that Kim Jong Un’s predecessors had with railway travel. Whether for reasons of security, comfort, or personal predilection, it elucidates why Kim Jong Un continues this familial tradition of railway diplomacy.

During one of the mid-2010s visits to this hallowed site, a North Korean guide accompanying a group of journalists whispered, “They will be here forever.” He was not referring to the embalmed bodies but to the train carriages—a sentiment that resonates with the lasting legacy of North Korea’s leadership.

Authored by Ted Anthony, who served as the Director of New Storytelling and Newsroom Innovation for The Big Big News and was previously the AP’s Asia-Pacific News Director from 2014 to 2018. He visited North Korea multiple times during his tenure. Follow him at http://www.twitter.com/anthonyted.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about North Korea’s Train Diplomacy

What is the main focus of this text?

The main focus of the text is to explore the significance of train travel among North Korea’s hereditary leaders, specifically examining how it has been a generational tradition embedded in the country’s governance and culture.

Who are the central figures discussed in this article?

The central figures discussed in the article are North Korea’s hereditary leaders: Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un.

Where can these train carriages and related artifacts be found?

The train carriages and related artifacts can be found at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, located on the edge of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Why is train travel significant among North Korean leaders?

Train travel is significant among North Korean leaders for various reasons including security, comfort, and personal preference. It has been a generational tradition that provides an insight into the governance and cultural practices of the country.

What are the restrictions for visitors at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun?

Visitors are subject to a series of restrictions, including prohibitions on photography and limited allowance for speech. They also must go through a security portal designed to remove dust before entering the inner sanctum where the embalmed bodies and train carriages are located.

What do the interiors of the train carriages reveal about the respective leaders?

Kim Jong Il’s carriage is well-appointed and modern, reflecting his tastes and lifestyle, while Kim Il Sung’s carriage has a more austere, vintage look, likely paying homage to his revolutionary roots.

What is unique about the article’s source?

The article is authored by Ted Anthony, who served as the Director of New Storytelling and Newsroom Innovation for The Big Big News. He was previously the AP’s Asia-Pacific News Director and has visited North Korea multiple times.

How does the article source its information?

The article sources its information from multiple visits to North Korea during the mid-2010s, specifically to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the train carriages and remains of past leaders are enshrined.

More about North Korea’s Train Diplomacy

  • The Official Website of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
  • A History of North Korea’s Railway Diplomacy
  • Kumsusan Palace of the Sun: An Overview
  • North Korean Leadership: A Family Dynasty
  • Train Travel in Diplomacy: A Global Perspective
  • Ted Anthony’s Twitter Profile
  • The Big Big News Official Website
  • North Korea’s Unique Governance and Culture: An Academic Study

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JamesClark September 13, 2023 - 11:49 am

i think the no speaking and no photos rules are eerie. Like, what are they hiding? But the article is on point.

Anna_Marie September 13, 2023 - 1:15 pm

Amazing how a seemingly mundane thing like train travel can be imbued with so much meaning. Stellar work, Ted!

Robert Lee September 13, 2023 - 8:05 pm

History repeats itself, I guess. Just shows that traditions carry a lot of weight, even in governance.

Sarah Williams September 13, 2023 - 10:57 pm

This is a really insightful piece! Didn’t expect to find a topic like this so engaging but you’ve done a great job here.

Karen White September 14, 2023 - 12:34 am

Love the depth of research in this article. Would love to read more about North Korean traditions from you, Ted.

John Smith September 14, 2023 - 3:35 am

Wow, never knew trains had such a big role in North Korean politics. Fascinating read, really opens ur eyes!

Emily Brown September 14, 2023 - 4:56 am

The level of detail here is something else, you can almost feel the cold and restricted atmosphere of the place. well done.

Mike_Olson September 14, 2023 - 5:55 am

kudos to the author. Visiting North korea multiple times? That takes guts.


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