North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il is apparently on his way to Russia, after his VIP train passed through China on Tuesday. The DPRK leader apparently did not meet with any Chinese officials as he passed through the PRC, although there may be a stopover in Beijing on the return leg of his trip.
Kim's journey is noteworthy for several reasons. First of all, he rarely leaves North Korea and travels only when necessary. There is clearly a compelling reason for his trip to Russia (and possibly) China at this time. South Korean analysts suggest that Pyongyang's negotiating position has weakened in the six-party talks, aimed at curtailing North Korea's nuclear program. By conferring with Russian and Chinese leaders, Kim may be attempting to shore up Pyongyang's position, and end a U.S.-imposed crackdown on firms which assist North Korea in counterfeiting, money laundering, drug dealing and other illicit activities. Those activities represent one of the DPRK's few viable sources of revenue (other than arms sales), and the U.S. crackdown is putting a pinch on North Korea's nearly-bankrupt economy.
But Kim Jong-il has other things on his mind, including military technology. With a booming economy, rival South Korea has significantly upgraded its military over the past decade, adding advanced battle tanks, 160 new F-16 fighters (built under license from Lockheed Martin), new frigates and submarines, and (most recently) long-range F-15K strike fighters from the United States. By comparison, North Korea's military is technologically stagnant, 40-year-old SA-2 and SA-3 still form the backbone of its air defense network, and the North Korean Air Force (NKAF) relies heavily on 1960s-era MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters, no match for the advanced aircraft flown by the South Koreans and their U.S. allies. North Korea would like to upgrade its military technology, possibly acquiring advanced Russian or Chinese fighters and SAMs (such as the SA-10/20 or HQ-9), but it's unclear how Pyongyang would pay for the purchases.
Kim's trip also suggests a degree of confidence in his domestic situation. In the past, Kim deliberately limited his foreign travel to discourage potential internal threats, particularly when he was cementing his hold on power in the mid-1990s. Now, Kim apparently feels comfortable enough to remain outside his country for several days, possibly a week. The trip to Russia and China would represent Kim's longest foreign trip since he came to power back in 1994. His willingness to travel outside the DPRK for an extended period suggests that Kim perceives no serious internal threats. However, his refusal to travel by air still reflects a degree of paranoia; like his father, Kim Jong-il believes that air travel is a risky proposition, making him vulnerable to an on-board bomb or shoot-down by the "imperialists," so he sticks to rail transportation.
One other aspect of Kim's trip is also worth watching. In 2004, returning from a trip to Beijing, there was a massive explosion at a North Korean border crossing, just hours after Kim's train transited that location. Some South Korean analysts believe the blast was a failed assassination plot; however, some media reports indicate that Syrian military technicians died in the explosion, suggesting that it might have been related to some sort of WMD project between Damascus and Pyongyang. Security was reportedly tight as Kim's train crossed the North Korea-China border yesterday; it will probably be even tighter on the return trip.