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Russia: Envoy's Travelogue Sheds Light On North Korea's Reclusive Kim

  • Kathleen Moore

The prize for most unusual state visit in 2001 would have to go to North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il for his marathon three-week train ride across Russia last summer. Excerpts have been published of a book about the journey, written by the Russian envoy who accompanied Kim on his travels. Their publication comes as relations between Moscow and Pyongyang appear to be getting closer.

Prague, 3 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Three hot summer weeks cooped up in a train with the leader of one of the world's most secretive and repressive regimes would not be many people's idea of fun.

Konstantin Pulikovskii, the Russian president's special representative in the Far East, admits he was initially less than enthusiastic about the prospect of doing just that.

But he says he had little choice in the matter. The assignment came from President Vladimir Putin and it had to be done.

Pulikovskii was the man chosen by Putin to escort North Korea's Kim Jong-Il on his marathon, 12,800-kilometer train journey across the Russian heartland last August.

Excerpts from Pulikovskii's account of the journey -- to be published soon as a book -- appeared last week in a number of Russian newspapers, providing a glimpse into the workings of Kim's coterie of advisers and subordinates.

Pulikovskii, who once compared Kim to Russia's Peter the Great, says he was worn out after their daily meetings on the train. "After each talk I would return exhausted to my carriage," he says. "I think it was partly due to Kim Jong-Il's strong personal energy. I constantly felt his powerful aura."

He describes the obsequious behavior of Kim's entourage when they entered the presence of their "Dear Leader:"

"They would bow deeply and stand like that until their commander gave them a barely visible signal allowing them to straighten up," Pulikovskii says. "In his presence they would talk about him in the third person -- 'As our dear leader said,' 'As our commander said,' and so on."

Life on the 15-carriage train, as Pulikovskii describes it, was a comfortable affair for Kim, though less so for the dozens of security agents, snipers, cooks, and other personnel sweltering in the August heat. The train was decked out with high-tech equipment, including a satellite map that tracked the route and provided vital statistics along the way -- the local governor's name, for example, or how many head of cattle his region supported.

Kim rarely left the train during the journey, but when he did, Pulikovskii describes him as bursting with curiosity.

On a visit to a Khabarovsk department store he stopped to inspect the men's clothing department. "Why do these trousers have cuffs and others don't?" he asked. "Surely no one buys such expensive shoes?"

More questions followed during a guided tour of the city. "Why are the heating systems insulated like this? Why do you build in brick and not concrete blocks? Is there any theft of non-ferrous metals?"

At one point talk turned to Kim's unusual strategy for dealing with drug addiction. "I order drug users as well as dealers shot -- we have a big population," he's quoted as saying. "And the Chinese that are causing the drugs to spread -- I have them beat with sticks. If you come across any Korean drug addicts, you have my permission to shoot them."

"This set me thinking," Pulikovskii writes. "If we followed Kim Jong-Il's suggestion, in time we could have no one left."

The publication of Pulkovskii's notes comes at a time when relations between Moscow and Pyongyang are becoming closer.

Kim Jong-Il has reportedly made several visits this year to the Russian embassy in Pyongyang and frequently receives the Russian ambassador. Russia has agreed to supply electricity to certain areas and has promised to help improve port facilities at Rajin near the two countries' border. And Moscow is also looking to upgrade North Korea's railways in the hope that, one day, a railroad will link Russia with South Korea.

Some analysts say the relationship received a boost after U.S. President George W. Bush, in a nationwide address in January, included North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as part of an "axis of evil."

Aidan Foster-Carter is one of the U.K.'s leading experts on Korea:

"I think they are getting closer. I think the main impetus, really, from the Russian side, precedes Bush. It has to do with Putin perceiving, as do a great many Russian diplomats, that whatever one thinks about communism, capitalism, et cetera, first [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev and then [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin basically threw away the quite strong position that Moscow had in the Soviet era in North Korea."

But Foster-Carter says it's unclear if the chumminess will ever translate into hard cash or a railroad link from Russia to South Korea:

"So far, a lot of it is aspirational -- the railway question particularly. I mean, will Russia really put a lot of money into upgrading a very, very decrepit North Korean railway system if it is not yet clear that North Korea will allow the final link in the chain for it to cross into South Korea and create this great 'iron silk road' that [President] Kim Dae-Jung in South Korea is very keen on -- you know, a freight route from Russia to South Korea? So I think it's a bit iffy. There are friendly noises, there are visits and so forth, but whether the hard cash and investment is happening I'm not so sure."

Leonid Vinogradov, one of the Russian journalists who helped Pulikovskii with his text, says the excerpts have been a great hit in South Korea. How Pulikovskii's travelogue has gone down with the North Korean leader, however, remains a mystery.