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Mystery tour for Kim Jong-il train in Russia


Kim Jong-Il and his armoured train arrived in Russia over the weekend to begin a trip shrouded in secrecy, during which he is expected to meet Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev. The North Korean leader will travel thousands of miles on the specially equipped train, and yesterday made a brief stop to tour a hydroelectric plant.

Photographers from Russian media outlets have been banned from taking any pictures of the train, and no official timetable of the Korean leader's movements has been released. A Kremlin spokesperson confirmed that Mr Medvedev and Mr Kim would meet, but said he could not offer any information about where and when.

Unconfirmed reports suggest the two leaders will meet tomorrow in the Siberian city of Ulan Ude, nearly 2,000 miles along the Trans-Siberian railway from the border with North Korea. It is unknown if he will also meet with the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

Mr Kim has a fear of flying and always travels by train. He visited China in May but it is his first trip to Russia since 2002, when he took a brief train ride to the east of the country for talks with Mr Putin, then the president. A year earlier, he spent almost a month in Russia, going to Moscow and back by train.

On the agenda for the Russian leadership this time will be the stalled talks over North Korea's nuclear programme, and possibly also the construction of a pipeline that will send Russian natural gas to South Korea, via the North. The project would provide much needed energy to South Korea and potentially earn the North much-needed revenue from transit fees, but construction has not started due to poor relations between the two Koreas.

North Korea is believed to be keen to restart talks over the nuclear weapons programme in return for increased aid to avert famine in the country. Russia said last week that it would deliver 50,000 tonnes of wheat to the country. Mr Kim is also believed to be seeking Russian backing for a transfer of power to his son, Kim Jong Un, who was not among the officials that North Korean state media said were accompanying the leader on the trip.

The train was met by high ranking officials when it crossed into Russia at the border town of Khasan on Saturday. Mr Kim disembarked yesterday, wearing his trademark khaki jumpsuit and dark glasses, to tour a hydro-electric plant and its 139-metre dam. Women in traditional Russian costumes proffered bread and salt to the North Korean leader, who stood for several minutes watching the water cascade down, before returning to the train.

The Russian newspaper Rossisskaya Gazeta reported that Mr Kim's train is made up of Russian carriages that have been specially modernised in Japan. The interiors are richly luxurious and the train is equipped with computers, internet and satellite communications. It is believed that the carriage used for official talks was a gift from Joseph Stalin to Mr Kim's father, Kim il Sung.

A special locomotive travels ahead of the main train for extra safety, and the cargo carriage contains two armoured Mercedes to transport Mr Kim when the train stops.