SEOUL, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- North Korea has intensified the personal security of Kim Jong Il in an apparent bid to prevent a possible attack when he travels around the country as public discontent is mounting following tougher social crackdowns.
The impoverished country runs six special luxury trains for its "Dear Leader's" travels around North Korea, designed to protect him from a possible assassination attempt, South Korea's top newspaper Chosun Ilbo, reported Monday.
The trains, with a total of 90 carriages, are armored and contain conference rooms, an audience chamber and bedrooms, the newspaper said, citing information from U.S. and South Korean intelligence authorities. Satellite phone connections and flat-screen TVs are also installed in the trains.
The special trains usually stop at only 19 stations built for Kim's exclusive use, called "No. 1 stations," to prevent any possible attack on him.
The No. 1 stations are no more than 20 miles from his "safe" personal villas scattered across the country. Kim uses bulletproof cars carried by the trains to reach the retreats from the stations.
About 100 security agents are sent in advance to stations Kim uses, to sweep the area for bombs and shut off power to other tracks to prevent other trains from moving until Kim leaves the station, Chosun said.
The train carrying Kim is preceded by an advance train to make sure the tracks are safe and followed by another one carrying bodyguards and support personnel in case of attack, it said. Military aircraft also provide security support for Kim's train trips.
"South Korean and U.S. intelligence have been spying on Kim's private train with satellites, U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and other surveillance equipment, as well as testimonies of North Korean defectors," the newspaper said.
The daily said Pyongyang has stepped up security on Kim's trips since a train blast, which killed about 170 people and injured 1,300 others, in a North Korean border town after his China trip in April 2004.
Kim barely escaped catastrophe as his heavily guarded special train passed through Ryongchon Station on his way from Beijing just hours before the explosion, which triggered speculation that the accident may have been linked to an assassination attempt.
The North's security agency said it believed a cell phone was used as a detonator because debris from a mobile phone with adhesive tape attached to it was found at the scene of the explosion. It had prohibited North Koreans from using mobile phones and confiscated all handsets, mostly from Workers' Party officials or those involved in trade businesses.
Kim is thought to have a fear of flying and has mostly traveled by train at home and abroad. He went by train on his last known trip to China in January 2006. His rare overseas trips have remained secret until he returned to North Korea.
Tighter security on Kim's trips comes as he is making brisk public activities this year in an apparent bid to quell rumors about his health. He is widely thought to have suffered a stroke in August last year.
Kim made 129 "on-spot" guidance tours this year, matching the total from 2005, when the previous high was set, and will probably exceed that record by the end of the year. In his latest reported inspection tour, state media said on Sunday that he traveled to the military's unit No. 1224 and urged the troops to improve their combat capabilities.
State media usually don't disclose details of Kim's public activities to ensure his safety, though "on-spot" guidance tours are at the center of the reclusive leader's ruling formula.
Sources in Seoul say the Kim Jong Il regime is concerned about mounting public discontent after it recently imposed tougher crackdowns on street markets it had tolerated for years. The ban on market activities was depriving families of a vital source of food and income at a time of growing food shortages.
In June the North shut its largest wholesale market, apparently out of concern that big markets spread capitalist influence, Seoul's Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights said.
The North has also take a series of measures to block an influx of outside information for fear it could damage the decades-long cult worship that has played a key role in keeping the troubled country afloat despite the global collapse of communism.
The North has also staged mass campaigns, mobilizing its famine-hit citizens for public works to tighten social control, as many North Koreans are drifting through the countryside in search of food or engaged in market trading.
"North Koreans no longer entirely depend on state food rationing, which has been irregular. They get all of their food and basic necessities from markets," a North Korean defector said.
Lee Seung-yong, director of Good Friends, a research and aid group in Seoul with extensive contacts in the North, said the crackdowns on markets have sparked widespread discontent among North Koreans.
Not a few North Korea watchers said the public outcry could lead to revolt in the country. The New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, in a report this year called Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea, said a military coup was possible.
"Unconfirmed reports of past assassination attempts and military purges, not to mention the apparent precautions Kim takes to ensure his personal security when traveling around the country, all suggest that a military-led coup is quite plausible," the report said.