There’s something about Kim—the Jong-un, not the Kardashian. For one, his smiling visage. I do not recall a single picture of him where he is seen as tense, distracted, or scowling. Not even when he met the Donald. There was, I am reliably told, a photographer who once caught him at a bad moment, but then that moment proved to be worse for the photographer.
And secondly, he claps very often. Mostly at his own remarks, or at parades in his honour, or when he has just shot off the latest intercontinental ballistic missile towards Hollywood. That clapping is infectious. Everybody around him starts clapping and they keep clapping well after he has finished. There was a man who just had to stop and itch the back of his neck; the itch was subsequently cured, permanently.
But beyond the winsome smile and the mesmerising clap, it is Kim’s love for trains that’s so charming. It runs in the family, as it were. His revered grandfather, Kim Il-sung, had the railroad bug and made a train his headquarters during the Korean War. He kept up his passion in peacetime; some of the palaces he built could be accessed only by private train. In 1984 he went on a longish journey—one can get tired even of Pyongyang’s charms—by private train through the Soviet Union and to almost every East European country. That, of course, meant changing the entire wheel-sets of the train from the broader Russian gauge to standard gauge and back. That minor inconvenience was overcome by taking along another train, with a full set of different gauge wheels.
Kim Jong-il, the father of the present Kim, had a fear of flying and so took to trains in a big way. He souped them up, fitting in conference halls and reception chambers and then took a 2,000km trip from Pyongyang to Moscow and back over 24 days. He also liked to live it up: a lucky Russian official who travelled with him recorded that multi-cuisine fine dining, including fresh lobsters and pork barbecue, was on offer. All to be washed down with French Bordeaux and Burgundy wines while young women sang to keep you amused. Take a cue, Indian Railways.
Kim Jong-un is keeping up the ‘khandaan ki izzat’. Though he has a private plane—a Russian Ilyushin 62—he prefers the super luxurious Pyongyang Mail, weaving languorously, at sixty kilometres an hour, through the vast Russian and Chinese spaces. It is appropriately nicknamed the Moving Fortress, in recognition of its armour-plated carriages, bullet proof windows and attack weapons, including a helicopter.
Kim’s host during the recent visit to the Russian Far East, Vladimir Putin is not exactly top of the charts in the smiling and clapping department. When he does smile, thinly, it feels like the onset of the Russian winter and when he does clap, strong men quiver in their boots. But he sure matches Kim in the matter of trains. Recently upgraded, Putin’s ‘ghost’ train, more difficult to track than a plane, is dripping with czarist opulence and is fitted with a gym, a Turkish hammam, anti-ageing machines and a cosmetology centre, among other amenities. Though Putin is no Lenin acolyte, literary license—and that alone—allows me to seek his inspiration in Russian history. It was by the famous “sealed train” that Lenin and about 30 fellow revolutionaries returned from exile in Switzerland to Russia in 1917. Boarding the train at Zurich he said, “Either we will be swinging from the gallows in three months or we shall be in power.” We all know what happened.