For Kim, sum­mit trip may prove a reach

A lo­ca­tion far be­yond North Korea would chal­lenge regime’s old fleet of pas­sen­ger jets

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By David Naka­mura

With a mil­lion-man army, a bevy of in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles and a grow­ing nu­clear arse­nal, North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jong Un has sought to project the im­age of a pow­er­ful leader who can face off against Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and China’s Xi Jin­ping.

Yet as he pre­pares for a pos­si­ble sum­mit with Trump next month, it’s not clear that Kim pos­sesses an­other piece of cru­cial hard­ware for the as­pir­ing global ne­go­tia­tor — an air­plane that could reli­ably fly him across the Pa­cific Ocean, or to Eu­rope, with­out stop­ping.

“We used to make fun of what they have — it’s old stuff,” said Sue Mi Terry, who served as a se­nior CIA an­a­lyst on Korean is­sues dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. “We would joke about their old Soviet planes.”

Most pub­lic spec­u­la­tion over the un­de­cided sum­mit lo­ca­tion has fo­cused on the de­mil­i­ta­rized zone be­tween North and South Korea, where South Korean Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in will meet Kim this month. Oth­ers have pointed to nearby China or Rus­sia. But some an­a­lysts have sug­gested Trump would fa­vor a grander set­ting in the United States or an­other coun­try out­side the re­gion — such as Sin­ga­pore, Switzer­land or Swe­den, which acts as the “pro­tect­ing power” for the United States in Py­ongyang.

That has raised a ques­tion about how Kim, who made his first trip out­side North Korea to Bei­jing in an ar­mored train last month, would get there.

“In terms of his trav­el­ing any­where, it would not be a prob­lem — the South Kore­ans or the Swedes would give him a ride,” said Vic­tor Cha, who served as se­nior Asia di­rec­tor at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil un­der Bush. “But it would be em­bar­rass­ing.”

If Kim took his own plane, stop­ping to re­fuel on the way to any sum­mit could also prove em­bar­rass­ing by high­light­ing the lim­its of the air­craft — and where to stop would be com­pli­cated as well, given the num­ber of coun­tries that have sanc­tioned North Korea.

The lo­gis­tics of Kim’s move­ments are likely to draw less pub­lic scru­tiny than, say, whether the North is se­ri­ous about de­nu­cle­ariza­tion or how Trump is prepar­ing. But Kim’s sur­prise visit to Bei­jing of­fers a win­dow into the di­chotomy of North Korea, as he at­tempts to mod­ern­ize the regime’s im­age abroad while pre­sid­ing over a na­tion where the vast ma­jor­ity of its 25 mil­lion cit­i­zens lack suf­fi­cient food and elec­tric­ity.

This sharp con­trast is the byprod­uct of a na­tion that has re­mained clois­tered since the Korean War armistice in 1953 and in­vested a lop­sided por­tion of its lim­ited trade rev­enue into the de­vel­op­ment of mil­i­tary weapons.

Since as­sum­ing power in 2011, Kim, who is thought to be in his early 30s, has tried to project a more charis­matic and worldly im­age than his fa­ther, Kim Jong Il, and grand­fa­ther, Kim Il Sung. That has in­cluded build­ing sky­scrapers in the cap­i­tal city of Py­ongyang, con­struct­ing a lux­ury ski re­sort in Kang­won Prov­ince to bol­ster in­ter­na­tional tourism, and open­ing several pri­vate run­ways near Kim fam­ily com­pounds for sin­gle-en­gine per­sonal jets.

Kim Jong Il was afraid of fly­ing and, on the rare oc­ca­sion that he left Py­ongyang, rode in an ar­mored train sim­i­lar to the one used by his son on the China trip last month. In re­cent years, the younger Kim staged a se­ries of photo-ops de­signed to demon­strate that not only does he not share his fa­ther’s aver­sion to the skies — he took in­ter­na­tional flights to at­tend board­ing school in Switzer­land — but that he is ac­tu­ally a pilot.

In De­cem­ber 2014, North Korean state me­dia re­leased a video of him be­hind the con­trols of the An-148, a Ukrainian-made plane de­signed for midrange, re­gional trips that was ac­quired by Air Ko­ryo, the North’s na­tional air­line.

Less than two months later, im­ages were re­leased of Kim on a dif­fer­ent plane — a pres­i­den­tial jet quickly dubbed “Air Force Un” — en route to in­spect a con­struc­tion site. He was pho­tographed hold­ing a phone to his ear while seated in a plush leather chair, be­hind a pol­ished wooden desk ar­rayed with blue­prints. In a sign that his was not the most mod­ern of air­line ex­pe­ri­ences, how­ever, Kim ca­su­ally dan­gled a cig­a­rette in his left hand and a crys­tal ash­tray was at the ready.

This plane was a Cold War-era Ilyushin-62, a Soviet-man­u­fac­tured lon­grange jet. Yet some an­a­lysts con­cluded there was rea­son to doubt the plane’s reli­a­bil­ity due to its age and lack of reg­u­lar test­ing.

“They don’t have an air­craft that can fly across the Pa­cific — most are quite old,” said Joseph Ber­mudez, an au­thor who con­trib­utes to 38 North, a web­site on North Korean af­fairs run by the US-Korea In­sti­tute at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity.

In 2016, Enrique Per­rella, pub­lisher of Air­ways Mag­a­zine, paid $2,200 to a Lon­don-based tour com­pany to join a group of 75 for­eign­ers to ride on several older Air Ko­ryo jets. (Among other things, he was treated to the famed Ko­ryo burger, a patty “of ques­tion­able meat” that he found sur­pris­ingly tasty.)

When he ar­rived in Py­ongyang, “only a very small por­tion” of Air Ko­ryo’s two dozen planes ap­peared op­er­a­tional, Per­rella said in an in­ter­view. The oth­ers were parked on tar­mac, some cov­ered or missing parts. The new­est planes, in­clud­ing a 21st cen­tury Rus­sian model, were “short range,” he said.

Still, Per­rella said he thought Air Ko­ryo could prob­a­bly find some­thing in its fleet to han­dle a transcon­ti­nen­tal flight.

Charles Kennedy, a Lon­don-based avi­a­tion jour­nal­ist who has been to North Korea nu­mer­ous times, was more bullish, not­ing in an email that the Il-62 re­mains in use for heads of state in Rus­sia, Su­dan and Ukraine. He added that Air Ko­ryo also main­tains two Tupolev jets, de­liv­ered in 2010, that are sim­i­lar to a Boe­ing 757, with a 3,000-mile range and an “ex­cel­lent safety record.”

The older-model planes are gen­er­ally used to lure avi­a­tion tourists, he said, but the newer planes have made trips to Kuwait, where North Korea pro­vides low-wage and to Kuala Malaysia.

Kennedy ac­knowl­edged that a trip from Py­ongyang to Los An­ge­les — a flight path of 5,900 miles — would stretch the bound­ary range of Kim’s Il-62. But he em­pha­sized that the plane “is ex­tremely rudi­men­tal tech­nol­ogy and the North Kore­ans would have no trou­ble keep­ing it in top con­di­tion.”

By com­par­i­son, Air Force One, a Boe­ing VC-25 sim­i­lar to a 747, is ca­pa­ble of fly­ing nearly 8,000 miles with­out re­fu­el­ing.

Air Ko­ryo used to op­er­ate flights to Africa and Eu­rope, but they were dis­con­tin­ued, in part due to in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions. (One Air Ko­ryo em­ployee was im­pli­cated in the plot to as­sas­si­nate Kim’s older half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at a Malaysian air­port in 2017.)

Now, Air Ko­ryo flights are lim­ited to Chi­nese cities and to Vladi­vos­tok, Rus­sia, just over 400 miles from Py­ongyang. work­ers, Lumpur,

JUNG YEON-JE/GETTY-AFP

A man in Seoul watches a news re­port in March about a sus­pected visit to China by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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