SHANGHAI / BEIJING (Reuters) – For a regime obsessed with secrecy, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's decision to travel to Beijing in a striking green tank train was an almost dead giveaway for his first overseas trip Since the seizure of power in 2011.
The historic visit sent officials who attempted to disguise the identity of the 21-car train and its inmates while covering approximately 1,100 km (680 miles) through northeast China This caused rare delays along the way and triggered a growing speculation wave as it approached the Chinese capital.
The train arrived at Beijing Station on Monday afternoon and left the following afternoon, with the identity of its inmates announced on Wednesday morning – after returning to North Korea in the city of Sinuiju.
In the border town of Dandong on the other side of the Yalu River from North Korea, which was connected to the isolated country via the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, indications of something unusual occurred. This bridge carries a single rail which, as it turned out, brought Kim's train to China late on Sunday evening.
The Daily NK, a Seoul-based website with North Korean kidnappers, reported that boards had been set up on the platform of Dandong Station with scaffolding that normally blocked a clear view before two trains passed through the station between 10:20 and 10:40 pm on Sunday evening.
Yao Jun, who sells auto parts in Dandong, said the station had been shut down Tuesday evening, an unusual event. Kim returned to North Korea early in the morning.
"Now we know for the next time – if the station is closed, it means Kim Jong Un has come to China," Yao told Reuters.
At least one hotel in Dandong was told by the Chinese authorities not to book bridge-facing rooms while tours from China to the north were canceled on Sunday, a source told Reuters. A local resident said that a wedding celebration on the river on Sunday was said not to make firecrackers.
On Monday morning, rumors and images circulated on social media in China before being blocked or erased by censorship, while railroad offices began warning travelers to expect delays or cancellations on Monday and Tuesday.
The disruption was remarkable in a country with a huge rail network, which is proud of its efficiency: 98.8 percent of trains arrived punctually in 2016 and 95.4 percent on schedule and caused complaints online.
Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, who is researching the country's railway system, said that Kim's train ran on the normal route network rather than on the tracks of the country's high-speed trains.
"Passenger and freight traffic would be affected," he said.
A person who answered the official phone line at Dandong Station on Thursday emphasized that everything was "normal" this week and asked, "Who told you the station is closed?"
An official of the International Cooperation Department of the China Railway Corporation declined to comment immediately to Kim's visit.
MANCHURIA AND THE GREAT WALL
China has not revealed the route that Kim took on the train – green with a yellow stripe like that of his late father Kim Jong Il on his last visit to China in the year 2011 was used.
The only visible difference between the two trains according to the photos of the visit of the older Kim was a license plate. The license plate of the younger Kim showed DF0002; the plate on the train used by his father showed DF0001.
The North Korean state media showed Kim and his entourage, including his wife Ri Sol Ju, while stopping in Dandong on the stuffed pink couches in the train car with Song Tao, head of the Chinese Communist Party's Department of International Affairs.
There are at least two railroads between Dandong and Beijing, and a normal service lasts at least 14 hours, according to Chinese train timetables. The route is also covered by China's high-speed trains, which run on separate tracks in less than six hours.
However, social media posts written by local railway offices and ordinary social media users indicate an increase in delays on the route from Dandong to Shenyang in the region previously known as Manchuria. The route winds its way west along the coast of Hebei Province to Beijing. On Monday morning, Weibo users complained at the train stations in Tangshan and Tianjin about unexpected cancellations of scheduled flights to Beijing, which were made without explanation.
In a Weibo Post published at 17:14. On Monday and since then canceled, the Beijing Railway Bureau told travelers at Beijing, Tianjin and Shijiazhuang stations that they expect delays of up to two hours for Shenyang and Qinhuangdao trains.
On Tuesday night, a Twitter user using the "2018you333" knob posted a grainy video of a train with a single horizontal stripe raging over an empty car underway. The user said he was driven at 300 km east of Shanhai Pass from Beijing and a large pass in the Great Wall of China.
"Let's guess where this respected guest comes from!" Said the post.
Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the video.
Additional coverage by Michael Martina, Philip Wen, and editors in Shanghai and Beijing; Arrangement by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson