Kim Jong Un To Fly On A Foreign Aircraft Direct To Singapore For Summit

There has been a tremendous amount of speculation regarding Kim Jong Un’s travel plans for the historic U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore that is scheduled to begin on June 12th, just four days from now. According to new reports, it seems that Kim and his delegation will ride on a foreign aircraft to get there. 

South Korean news outlet Chosun noted that Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan was in North Korea on Thursday to nail down the challenging logistics surrounding the summit. Part of these discussions resulted in the decision to have the North Korean dictator and his entourage fly on a Singaporean or Chinese aircraft from Pyongyang International Airport direct to Changi Airport or a nearby airbase. 

Before this decision was supposedly made, it was reported that Kim would refuel in China on his way to the summit and that his North Korean aircraft would be escorted at least part of the way by Chinese fighters.

North Korea’s VIP configured Il-62M.

In recent months, the press has churned out many stories, some of them quite sensational, regarding the questionable reliability of Kim’s executive transports. The two Soviet-era Il-62M airliners’ overall abilities to convey the dictator and his team to locales far beyond the Korean Peninsula, and especially some 3,000 miles to Singapore, is widely viewed as suspect. It is also been posited that just one of these aircraft is even serviceable. 

Kim photographed on his remodeled Il-62 while flying over Pyongyang to survey a large construction project.

I have profiled Kim’s Il-62s and his other aircraft, as well as his love of aviation in general, in the past. The IL-62s have received a number of upgrades in recent years, especially to its once very dated interior. One of the jets was used most recently to fly Kim Jong Un’s sister—whose star has risen dramatically within Kim’s inner circle as of late—to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. It also flew Kim himself outside of North Korea’s borders for the very first time, providing transportation for a surprise visit to Dalian, China to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping just weeks ago. 

Kim arrives in Dalian, China, his first trip abroad on an airplane as premier and his second trip abroad overall.

That trip was very short, covering just a couple hundred miles. It also marked just the second time Kim had left the country since becoming premier. The first trip was to Beijing just two months earlier aboard an armored train. So the trip to Singapore is not just a long one for the rickety Il-62, but also for Kim and the power he wields over North Korea’s military-political apparatus, the latter being a critical but somewhat opaque issue that we recently discussed in detail.

One of two Tu-204s that provide airliner service from Russia and China to Pyongyang. 

But the idea that Kim only has the Il-62 as an organic transportation option is nonsense. North Korea’s notoriously bad state-run airline, Air Koryo, has more modern aircraft available to move Kim about in addition to other Il-62 airliners and Il-76 transports. A pair of Tu-204s acquired in the last decade are the country’s most modern airliners in service that possess considerable range. A trip to Singapore would still likely require a fuel stop, but they would certainly be a more attractive and safer option than the old Il-62s.

In recent years these aircraft have seldom flown for long periods over water or to remote or unfamiliar locations, only servicing locales in nearby Russian and China on a scheduled basis. With this in mind, relying on a foreign country’s long-range aircraft and experienced aircrew seems like a very smart move. 

There are risks on so many levels when it comes to Kim leaving North Korea for the controversial summit, but having his aircraft go missing could quickly spark a conflict. Using a third party’s aircraft that North Korea feels comfortable with should greatly alleviate many of his long-range transportation concerns and it would provide some insurance to the U.S. and its allies that a malfunction wouldn’t turn into a dire international crisis. 

Using a more modern and reliable aircraft also means that the summit, which could last a number of minutes or be extended for two days, has a better chance of starting on time to begin with. A mechanical breakdown in a foreign country with an old Russian-built aircraft could result in a delay likely measured in days not hours, not to mention a major set of security issues.

At the same time, if this report proves accurate, the fact that this is being decided just now, only a few days away from the summit, underscores just how hastily it is being thrown together. And there is still no guarantee it will happen at all.  

We don’t know what the situation is like at home for Kim and such a distant locale definitely puts the young ruler out on a limb. According to U.S. officials, he is extremely worried about assassination attempts on his way to the summit and while in Singapore itself. So last minute cold feet remains a very real possibility. 

And just like everything having to do with this summit, Kim’s travel plans could change. He could simply opt to take his own aircraft even after a foreign aircraft is secured. It is also possible one of North Korea’s airliners, and even Kim’s VVIP configured Il-62, could still be used to carry advisors, security personnel, and other members of North Korea’s diplomatic team to Singapore in advance of Kim’s arrival.

Regardless of the transportation details, suffice it to say that next week looks set to include one of the most interesting and suspenseful displays of geopolitical theater of our lifetimes.

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