North Korean leader rides train on way to Vietnam

BEIJING (AFP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s armoured train chugged across China yesterday as he headed to his highly anticipated second summit with US President Donald Trump in Vietnam.

Emulating his late father and grandfather, who took epic train trips when they were leaders, Kim set off on the long journey from Pyongyang railway station on Saturday, with a military honour guard seeing him off.

His departure was confirmed by the North’s official KCNA news agency, with images showing citizens cheering him as he waved from the train before what could be a 60-hour journey to Vietnam.

The train crossed the border city of Dandong later that day, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency and the specialist outlet NK News, but its route remained a tightly-held secret.

The train’s crossing into China follows days of speculation over Kim’s travel plans, as his team gathered in Hanoi ahead of the talks expected on Wednesday and Thursday.

Accompanying the North Korean leader was right-hand man and top general Kim Yong-chol, who met with Trump at the White House last month, his sister and close aide Kim Yo-jong, and other high-ranking officials, KCNA said.

Security was tight before the train’s arrival in Dandong, with police cordoning off the border bridge area with tape and metal barriers, and leading an AFP journalist out of the area.

A hotel facing the bridge was closed for impromptu renovations last Saturday.

“The train is long and crossed the bridge slower than the tourist train, but it’s definitely him, there’s a lot of police presence,” an unidentified source told NK News.

Windows on the train were blacked out, the source said, with only headlights turned on as it crossed.

The train usually takes 13 hours to reach Beijing, but there were no signs of heightened security around the railway station yesterday, indicating the train likely bypassed the Chinese capital on the nearly 4,000-kilometre journey to Vietnam.

Kim has met Chinese President Xi Jinping four times in the past year, briefing his country’s sole major ally before and after his historic summits with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Kim, who last met Xi in January, could be saving their next meeting for his return trip to debrief the Chinese leader.

Trump and Kim met in June in Singapore, producing a vaguely worded agreement on denuclearisation, but progress has since stalled, with the two sides disagreeing over what the agreement meant.

Observers say tangible progress is needed in Hanoi to avoid the talks being dismissed as a publicity stunt.

Several sources said Kim was expected to arrive in Vietnam by train, stopping at the Dong Dang station near the China border, then driving to Hanoi.