North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s second rendezvous with Chinese President Xi Jinping, within a short span of a little more than 40 days since the first one, in the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian on Monday and Tuesday may have come as a surprise to observers.
Yet one aspect of Kim’s trip to China that could have been overlooked was that he hopped on a plane operated by Air Koryo, North Korea’s flag carrier, and touched down at the picturesque Chinese coastal city that is just 360 kilometers west of Pyongyang.
An Ilyushin Il-76MD plane bearing registration number P-914, the military transport variant of the Soviet-made four-engine turbofan airlifter, was spotted on Tuesday afternoon on the apron of Dalian’s airport.
Meanwhile, Tokyo-based Kyodo News reported that a small private jet with a giant red star on its empennage, believed to be a Soviet narrow-body Ilyushin Il-62, was seen taking off from Dalian Airport on Tuesday afternoon.
The sight of at least two North Korean planes appearing in Dalian is evidence that Kim, alongside his sister Kim Yo-jong and other trusted members of his coterie, traveled by air to China.
It appears that Kim has cured his familial “aviophobia,” after his father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung all avoided air travel on their rare foreign visits when they were in power.
Kim Jong-un boarded his drab green special train with tinted bulletproof windows, which snaked through the boundary and northeastern China’s rail network all the way to Beijing, to meet Xi for the first time at the end of March.
Now observers are taking a keen interest in Kim’s choice of transportation for the upcoming summit with US President Donald Trump, though the exact date and location of the groundbreaking meet are yet to be announced.
Among the slew of possible host countries for the talks – Mongolia, Switzerland and others have all been suggested – Singapore could provide an ideal venue by virtue of its social order and a track record of facilitating détente talks between feuding parties.
But Kim may face a logistical challenge if he wants to head for the Southeast Asian city-state, as it’s unpractical to sit in a train all the way from Pyongyang to Singapore, a journey of more than 4,700 kilometers.
North Korea’s antiquated Ilyushin Il-62, whose production was ceased by Russia in 1995, is now banned from landing at numerous airports worldwide because it fails to conform with modern aviation standards regarding noise control and safety. Meanwhile being the national airline of a hermit country, Air Koryo lacks experience in operating long-haul flights – its longest route so far is the 950km Shanghai service.
Speculation has been rife that Kim may have to charter a flight from a third party, or he may have just mooted the idea of leasing a plane from China while meeting with Xi in Dalian.
What Kim could be looking for is at least one wide-body jet for him to travel in comfort – just like being in the luxurious carriages of his train – with the capacity to carry members of his entourage and security detail.
For sure Beijing would be happy to dispatch one of its aircraft to carry Kim, on the strength of the newly restored camaraderie between the two leaders, and also as a subtle sign of its influence over Kim.
A number of wide-body planes such as Boeing 777s and 787s as well as Airbus A330s from Air China and other state-owned carriers, as well as professional pilots and crew, could be readily assigned for the task.