SEOUL - Unlike his dictator father, who famously shunned air travel, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un jetted off to the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian this week, becoming the first North Korean ruler to fly abroad in 32 years. Since taking office in late 2011, Kim has occasionally flown inside North Korea. The recent foreign trip, albeit not far from the North Korean border, comes ahead of his expected summit with President Donald Trump aimed at ending the North Korean nuclear problem.
Was Kim trying to test his jet’s flight capacity because his summit with Trump could happen in Singapore, Did he simply want to show that he is different from his flight-averse father, Or perhaps he had urgent matters to discuss with Chinese President Xi Jinping that precluded the time-consuming train he took to Beijing in March to meet Xi.
Kim’s official plane is a remodeled version of the Soviet-made IL-62. North Korea calls it Chammae-1, named after the goshawk, North Korea’s national bird. South Korean media say the plane can fly at a maximum speed of 900 kilometers per hour (560 mph) and carry about 200 people. Its maximum flight range is about 9,200 kilometers (5,720 miles) but has reportedly never flown that far.
Some experts say one reason why North Korea apparently wants to have a Kim-Trump summit in Pyongyang is that Kim’s plane might not be able to fly to faraway places such as Switzerland, Sweden or Washington. Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, used Chammae-2, the same kind of aircraft as her brother’s, when she visited South Korea in February to attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. She became the first member of North Korea’s ruling Kim family to visit South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Schooled for several years in Switzerland, Kim is believed to have traveled by air often as a teenager. After he became North Korea’s leader, state media said he was aboard Chammae-1 when he reviewed air force planes taking part in combat aeronautics contests and inspected construction work in Pyongyang. North Korean media photos also showed Kim looking out the windows of his plane, walking down the stairs from the aircraft and walking with his wife, Ri Sol Ju, on a red carpet placed on an airstrip.