World's most famous railfan

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, February 24, 2019

That would not be me or Don or Brian. It would not be Mr. Wrinn or those who piloted the Good Ship Trains before him. You can forget Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, both of whom have tinkered with trains. No, I’m talking about Kim Jong Un, a.k.a. Rocket Man, the Supreme Leader of North Korea. His armored green train with yellow trim is wandering about China this weekend, on its way from the North Korean capital to the China-Vietnam border. From there, he will be driven to Hanoi for a meeting with President Trump later this week.

The fact is, I’m not sure whether he likes trains or hate planes or perhaps likes planes but doesn’t own one good enough to trust, Boeing and Airbus never having sold to North Korea. When Kim flies, which is almost never, it’s aboard a 40-year-old Soviet-built jet, a model Ilyushin Il-62 said to have a scarcity of spare parts.

But let’s get back to that train. Actually, there are three trains when Kim travels. First is a security train, the second carries Kim and his immediate entourage and the third has everyone else. A photo of Kim waving from a vestibule before his section left Pyongyang calls to mind the heavyweight steel cars that Illinois Central modernized atop six-wheel trucks, to great effect. Another photo has him waving through a window, with other passengers happily gathered around. One appears to me to be Ri Sol Ju, the Supreme Leader’s attractive wife. I bet the entire party is having fun today. I wish I had been invited.

Kim rode this same train to China in 2018 on his first trip out of North Korea since replacing his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011. According to ABC News, the father hated flying, had a “penchant for a playboy lifestyle,” and equipped the train lavishly. On a three-week trip to Moscow in 2001, ABC says, Kim the elder stocked the train with cases of French wine, which lubricated passengers’ spirits during on-board karaoke sessions. Kim Jong Un has a less flamboyant reputation. Probably I should have been invited to ride with his father to Moscow. He and I could have compared the better vintages of first-growth Bordeaux reds as we feasted on lobster and barbequed pork. Kim Jong-il is believed to have died of a heart attack aboard the train.

Alas, the closest you and I and Don and Brian and Jim (and Warren and Bill) will ever get to this awesome train is to tour one of its former carriages now on permanent display in the ornate mausoleum near Pyongyang where remains of the present Supreme Leader’s father and grandfather lie in repose. To quote ABC News one last time: “Guides at the mausoleum explain that the carriage was used as a mobile office—proof, they insist, the leaders worked tirelessly for the people.” I’d rather see where the cases of wine were kept.—Fred W. Frailey

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