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The Dear Leader and the gnome

Friendship between the Kremlin and North Korea is no joke

Artillery Row

It was pulled by two heavy locomotives. Next an armoured ani-aircraft wagon. After the baggage car came the leader’s steel-plated pullman, followed by a command coach containing a conference room and communications centre. Connected to them, the 22-man security detail travelled in their own rolling stock. Beyond was a dining car, two coaches for guests, and of all things a bathing wagon, then a second dining car. Bringing up the rear were two sleeping cars, a press wagon for the news hounds, another baggage car and finally another anti-aircraft wagon. The coachwork was of the finest materials, hardwoods and high-grade leather, armour-plated, and bristling with guns and radio antennae. Outside in all weathers, day and night, other protective guards swept along the tracks.

There was something charmingly old fashioned about the decision of Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea, to travel by train to meet his fellow dictator, Vladimir Putin. Over here, even when buffered by a railcard, Network Rail can sometimes fail spectacularly as an ambassador for this effortless mode of transport. Yet, we forget how important journeying by train was and remains. Important figures frequently opt for the smooth clickety-clack over air or road for their expeditions. The method is discreet, away from prying eyes, yet connected to a nationwide network that avoids congestion. Passengers can wine and dine, sleep, relax, study, converse and think. Rail lines are easy to guard, whereas the boulevards are full of threatening traffic and potential ambush points. Franz Ferdinand, Reinhard Heydrich, Charles de Gaulle and John F. Kennedy found this out to their cost between 1914 and 1963. Fatally in three out of four cases. 

Some leaders have a phobia about flying. Stalin was one, which was why the only summit meetings he attended, at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam, were ones connected to Moscow by rail. Perhaps President Putin, a known fancier of custom-built rolling stock, will now fear a weird kind of Karma for having arranged the eternal flight of his former chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The president has several trains, each containing an identical office to those in his state dacha, the Kremlin and St Petersburg. All look the name, making it impossible for the viewer, and potential assassin, to know where he is. Maybe his long-distance travel plans will be dictated by iron roads from now on? 

Rail has dominated history for almost 200 years. From Queen Victoria’s first journey in 1842, British monarchs have travelled in their own rolling stock. A century later, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth let Winston Churchill commandeer the royal trainset for his wartime whistlestop tours. The First World War ended in a former Wagon-Lits dining car, No. 2419D, belonging to Ferdinand Foch, Allied Commander-in-Chief. Hitler cruelly had it dragged out of its museum for the French armistice of June 1940, signed by Foch’s former subordinate, Pétain. Generals Montgomery and Eisenhower in 1944 both used personal trains, codenamed “Rapier” and “Alive”, which sported metal shuttered windows and carried their staff cars, to move swiftly around United Kingdom in the months before D-Day. 

The North Korean’s father, Kim Jong Il, hated taking to the air, instead relying on his old green-and-yellow-liveried rolling stock to convey him around his hermit kingdom. Loaded with extravagant foods, fine wines and attended by glamorous staff, the elder Kim used it on the last state visit of a North Korean to Russia in 2002. “It was possible to order any dish of Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese or French cuisine,” remembered one journalist. “Live lobsters were taken to stations along the route, with cases of Bordeaux and Burgundy”. However, the size, opulence and weight of this upmarket rolling McDonald’s restricted its speed to a graceful 40mph. Kim Senior’s Great Continental Railway Journey took one month. Michael Portillo, eat your heart out. 

Paranoid about their personal security, the Kim family have traditionally relied on around 90 special carriages, usually made into three trains. The first handles advance security; the next carries the Kim entourage; whilst the last houses bodyguards and other personnel. The middle train, with its wall-mounted lighting, beds, sofas and armchairs reupholstered in “tasteful” reddish-pink leather (I know), was the one in which the current Kim lounged on his way to summits in Beijing and Hanoi, and travelled south in 2019 to meet President Trump in the Korean Demilitarised Zone. 

The recent state visit of Kim aboard the twenty-hour Pyongyang to Vladivostok Express, no stops, should give us pause for thought. With him travelled officials closely connected with his weapons development and military science teams, and his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong. In addition to being the regime’s propagandist-in-chief, she acts as gatekeeper to her overweight, chain-smoking brother, who became leader after the sudden death of their father in 2011. Kim’s North Korean Night Mail carried a significant assembly of his regime’s inner circle.

There is a great temptation to put Kim Jong Un into the “joke dictators” category

There is a great temptation to put Kim Jong Un into the “joke dictators” category of what used to be called the Third World, officially now the Global South. Commentators are prone to see him as a half-witted runt compared with Western leaders, a sort of Mussolini to Hitler or a Chechen Kadyrov to Russia’s Putin. But that is to misunderstand Kim and his nation. This may be only seventh time he has left North Korea since becoming leader, but two of those visits have been to Russia. Yet, the Kim dynasty is the epitome of everything Putin would like to achieve, and how he would like to be seen by posterity.

When compared to his new chum Vladimir, Kim’s grip on his country is as profound as are the credentials of his almost monarchical premiership. He is the third generation of his family to have ruled North Korea with an iron hand. The family came to power in 1948, four years before Putin was born. North Koreans revere their “Dear Leader” as no Russian respects Putin. Kim’s murals, portraits, and photographs are in a very Orwellian sense everywhere, all-seeing. His hold over his subjects is absolute, via control of news and social media. It is an offence to write over Kim’s picture in a newspaper, use it to cover a parcel or print it on paper of poor quality. Fish and chips wrapped in Dear Leader’s image is literally a hanging offence. The population is divided into three political classes: core, wavering or hostile, which determine every aspect of a citizen’s life; even haircuts for men and women are controlled: there are 28 government-approved styles from which to choose. To request a Number 29 risks execution.

Kim’s inherited network of penal and forced labour camps far outnumbers those of Moscow. Until recently, abduction of foreigners for their technical and medical skills was a state policy. Around 200,000 are known to have vanished. Most incarcerated are there for eternity, guards may intervene to alter the length of life. Although Putin may be far wealthier — the entire GDP of North Korea is estimated at only $40 billion, not enough to buy Twitter — the North Korean wields absolute power of which the Russian leader can only dream. The man in the Kremlin genuinely respects and envies that might. He is intrigued by his Korean counterpart. Although Kim’s population of 26 million is on a par with Australia, Cameroon and Niger, those are the only similarities with the world’s 98th smallest and most isolated country. 

Kim’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, often abbreviated to DPRK, remains far closer to the Marxist-Leninist ideals that inspired the original Soviet Russia. In the mid-1950s Pyongyang and Moscow parted company due to Nikita Khrushchev’s “de-Stalinisation” reforms in the Soviet Union, which Kim believed was betraying the old vision. Instead, North Korea adopted a political philosophy known as Juche. A mixture of policy and ideology, it was devised as a “third way”, to avoid North Korea being seen as a satellite of either China or the Soviet Union.

Described as Communism erased of references to Russia and Stalin, Juche incorporates beliefs of state self-reliance, autonomy and independence from the rest of the world. It is a development of old-school Communism, without the need to export global revolution. The former dogma was the glue that held the Soviet Union together, but post-1991 that adhesive dissolved. All recognise its replacement in Russia with gangster avarice has been a disaster. Most North Koreans, however, because they have nothing else to cling to, are thoroughly imbued with their own leader’s worldview and his Juche.

The DPRK has recast even its calendar. Imitating French Revolutionaries who restarted their records in 1792 with Year I, and twelve newly-named months, and Cambodia’s Pol Pot who labelled 1975 as Year Zero, North Korea’s Juche calendar begins in April 1912, when Kim Il Sung was born. We are now in the 112th Year of Juche. The original patriarch was born Kim Song Ju, but as with other underground terrorists of the era including Stalin and Tito, he adopted a nom de guerre which became his official moniker. The reborn Kim Il Sung directed resistance against Japanese rule over Korea throughout the 1930s, later via exile in Russia. Known in Tokyo at the “Tiger”, and considered their greatest foe, the barely-literate Kim founded the Korean People’s Army, returned to his homeland as a major in the Red Army, and came to power as the head of a pro-Moscow guerilla movement after Japan’s departure. 

Each generation created a personality cult around themselves, with Kim Il Sung calling himself “Great Leader”. Not to be outdone, Fidel Castro retaliated with his own appellation of “Greatest Leader”. After the patriarch’s death in 1994, his son Kim Jong Il was dubbed “Eternal Leader”, while Vlad’s buddy, Kim Jong Un styles himself “Dear Leader.” Perhaps the present ruler’s title sounds weak by comparison, but bad luck, Kim. The late Enver Hoxha of Albania (never a fan of North Korea) had already bagged the title of “Supreme Comrade”, whilst “Supreme Leader” was nabbed before the youngest Kim was even born, by the Ayatollahs. I believe “Stable Genius” is already in use elsewhere. There is presumably none of this in the corridors of the Kremlin, where I am informed Putin is known privately as Kim Jong Pu. Others secretly call him “Gnome” on account of Putin’s diminutive 5 feet 7 inches, also Kim’s height. And to think Hitler (5 feet 8 inches) was a Führer, a mere leader. 

Each 15 April, the first Kim’s birthday, is a national holiday and known as the Day of the Sun. Crowds bow down before the thousands of Kim family statues scattered across the nation. The sculptures, usually clad in greatcoats with arms outstretched, bear resemblance to those of Stalin. The late Saddam Hussein, too, possessed a similar rapture for the dictator from Georgia, which explains why he was portrayed in bronze and paintings wearing a heavy coat in the heat of Iraq. Biblical graven images spring to mind. Kim’s mate Vladimir must feel deprived at his own lack of statues or that his birthday is not a national holiday, or (so far) otherwise celebrated.

There is much the Kim clan owes to Russia. Amidst a raft of worldwide revolutionary interventions ranging across East and West Europe, in Cuba, Libya and Malaya, it was Stalin’s political and military support for the original Provisional People’s Committee of North Korea that brought Kim Il Sung to power. The Soviet Union then backed his invasion of South Korea in 1950, with tanks, trucks, artillery and smaller weapons. Moscow deployed Soviet pilots in their MiGs to contest Korean airspace with the USAF and trained North Korean aircrew in Russia. 

The armistice signed in July 1953 not only kept Kim in power, albeit at a cost of 2.5 million Korean dead, but has fixed in place a well-resourced but costly American force. The 30,000-strong US Eighth Army remain there to this day, with its mission to defend Seoul. Each Kim has understood they can count on Beijing’s reluctant support; the alternative, an American-led occupation of the North, would see US troops along the Chinese border. President Xi Jinping will not be happy about the new Pyongyang-Moscow axis, but he can do little to prevent it. 

In a trade with Russia, Kim would like technical know-how to advance his country’s nuclear programme. In return he gets to offload a vast stock of slowly-corroding Soviet-era 152mm artillery ammunition, that may do as much harm to the firer as to the target. Although the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, was dismissive of the threat of these munitions to Ukraine, the West is quietly worried. The meeting of the two leaders at Vostochny Cosmodrome, a new Russian space base 900 miles from Vladivostok, offered several media opportunities. They got to exchange rifles. Then came Kim’s rant about the “sacred fight against the hegemonic forces” that oppose them. It also signalled Kim’s interest elsewhere. 

“The leader of North Korea shows great interest in rocketry, and is trying to develop space. We may be able to help,” Putin reportedly said. The prospect of a North Korean presence in orbit or further, following the arrival on the Moon of unmanned lunar landers from China and India, is a matter for great concern. In failing to put military satellites into orbit and uncertainty with his ballistic missile programme, the Korean has reached out to Moscow. Bizarrely the country best able and most motivated to slow down this development is China. It tolerates the Frankenstein neighbour it once helped to create, but does not encourage it. Though both parties are developing a symbiotic relationship, we do not need any more rail journeys to Russia by Kim. He is more dangerous than he appears, and Putin’s friendship will only embolden him.

And the rolling stock I described at the beginning? No, it wasn’t Kim Jong Un’s, but its owner probably inspired him. That was “Amerika”, a train named after a small hamlet in Belgium where its user had fought earlier in his life. Described in memoirs penned by the young commander sometimes in charge of rail-borne security, it was the Führersonderzug, the special trainset used by Adolf Hitler. Running the security detail brought the officer into close proximity with his leader on a daily basis. In a sinister version of travelling on the Orient Express, closeted together they established a rapport, another benefit of rail travel. Eventually the soldier, training on his familiarity, asked for a higher job. And got it. His name? Erwin Rommel.

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