Who is so fearful of flying, and rich, that he owns six luxury trains?
It’s impoverished North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, of course, whose other idiosyncrasies include spiking his hair, wearing tinted sunglasses, and living in relative luxury while many of his own citizens go without adequate food.
“The way of thinking about Kim Jong-il is he’s like an emperor,” says Scott A. Snyder, adjunct senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He’s the master and everybody else is a servant.”
(Shhhh. We’re not supposed to know.)
It's apparent that Kim enjoys traveling in style. His armored train is decked out with: conference rooms, an audience chamber, bedrooms, satellite phone connections, and flat screen TVs. Some 20 train stations in North Korea were built specifically for his six trains, which all together have about 90 carriages, according to a November report in South Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo.
In addition to the pot-bellied leader’s incredible luxury inside Korea, he reportedly has $4 billion saved away in European banks.
For Kim’s 2001 trans-Siberian train trip to Moscow, which took several weeks, he stocked up on live lobster and Bordeaux and Beaujolais wine flown in from Paris, according to the book "Orient Express: Across Russia with Kim Jong Il," by Konstantin Pulikovsky.
The last time Kim traveled by train to China, in 2006, an explosion occurred on the North Korean tracks shortly before his train passed. (It was blamed on a dangling wire.) Now, for security purposes, or perhaps to act as decoys, another train precedes him and a yet a third train follows him when he travels. Still another 100 security personnel are sent ahead to secure his destination.
Asking China for support
Kim's tedious, luxurious mode of travel comes at the expense of his country’s 20 million citizens, many of whom live in poverty and some of whom are believed starving. The government's botched currency reform last year lopped two zeros off the currency while also causing food shortages, which itself could be one reason for his visit to China now.
“He needs China’s help,” says Mr. Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations. China may be willing to give North Korea food rations in exchange for Kim’s return to six-party nuclear talks, says Snyder.
Compared to Kim's 2006 visit to China, this trip is unique because of the media’s unprecedented documentation, says Snyder. Japanese and Korean media have offered blow-by-blow accounts of Kim’s movements thanks to satellite imagery and access to the cities where Kim is visiting. “At this stage, it’s the most anticipated non-visit to occur, well, since the last time he went,” says Snyder.
Afraid of flying or a traditionalist?
An estimated as many as 40 percent of the world's population is afraid of flying the friendly (or volcanic ash-ridden) skies.
But because of the aforementioned secrecy surrounding Kim’s movements, Snyder says he isn’t convinced that Kim really does suffer pteromerhanophia. An alternative reason for his preference for trains could be his deference to tradition; his father always traveled by train, too, says Snyder.
Jury is out on how Kim’s son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, prefers to travel. But his schooling in Bern, Switzerland (where he learned English, German, and French), would imply that he doesn't mind boarding a plane now and then.
“I don’t know how he got there or got back,” says Snyder.