Kim Jong Un’s Poor Travel Options
Could North Korea’s airplanes survive a long flight?
Remember when North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat to the United States?
The threat is back (thanks, Obama) and so another talk between President Trump and Kim Jong Un is in the works.
But before they can g̶o̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶i̶r̶ ̶s̶e̶c̶o̶n̶d̶ ̶d̶a̶t̶e̶ have a second meeting, officials in both Washington D.C. and Pyongyang will need to cooperate on a location for the meeting. Unlike typical meetings between world leaders, these talks cannot be held in either leaders’ country for security reasons and lack of trust between the two (and sanctions). To this day no serving US president has ever set foot in North Korea.
Instead, a third party location will be sought that is not too far from or too critical of Pyongyang. The reason being that North Korea’s airplanes are laughable.
It is common knowledge that the president of the United States travels globally in a Boeing VC-25 (similar to a 747) dubbed Air Force One. But what does Kim Jong Un use to get away?
Kim doesn’t leave the North often but he has in the past and he does have options, albeit poor ones. For trips to China Kim prefers to travel by heavily armed train. The train he rides has been in use since his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, came to power.
His father, Kim Jong Il, utilized this very train for months at a time during trips to Europe. Following train cars carried any tool required to transfer the train to other tracks. His trains had luxurious conference rooms and reception halls, even a communications facility. He was said to be deathly afraid of flying.
Perhaps this fear was warranted. North Korea has for so long been investing so much money into the development of arms for military use that they have neglected economies they should have the competence to build. This neglect has left the nation with old, overused and underserviced Soviet-era planes, and not many of them either.
Planes are not new to Kim, who in recent years has overseen construction of runways at a few of his residences for his small private jets. North Korea claims Kim knows how to fly, and has released pictures of Kim sitting in a cockpit, fascinated with all the buttons and levers, like any experienced pilot.
Kim is accustomed to flying, just not in luxury. The Il-62 that North Korean heads of state travel in is also the model favored by officials in Russia, Ukraine, and Sudan. The Il-62 has a range of approximately 6000 miles compared to the 8000 miles or so the Air Force One can travel without refueling.
Kim’s own state plane, Chammae-1 (named after the national bird), has been in use since long before he was born. Other high ranking officials including Kim’s own sister, Kim Yo-jong, fly internationally on Chammae-2.
North Korean officials reportedly pushed for the first round of talks to be held in Pyongyang. This was interpreted by many in the West as a fear of their long-distance flying capabilities.
When Kim met with Trump for the Singapore Summit in 2018 he arrived on a 747 operated by Air China (not quite in agreement with the North Korean philosophy of Juche, extreme self-reliance). Because of its mixed-use as a passenger jet and supreme leader transport vehicle, it was reported to have had no artillery defense system.
It doesn’t seem that North Korea has ever used a helicopter as an aerial means of dictatorial transportation.
For the next series of talks, the United States and North Korea will likely settle on a city nearer to Kim and close enough that he can take a non-stop flight. If a plane carrying the dictator needed to refuel, it would be difficult to find an airport willing to take it in for refueling. Furthermore, it could prove embarrassing if it is shown that Kim’s plane can’t make it all the way to its destination.
Of course, a meeting would not be canceled or diverted because Kim Jong Un cannot arrive quickly. China or Russia could volunteer to transport Kim on their own fleets. Though this comes with the risk of a plane being bugged and conversations being listened in on.
North Korea reportedly has three active ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles)- the actual missile that carries the nuclear warhead to where it will be detonated. Their most recently constructed ICBM, the Hwasong-15, can apparently hit a target anywhere in the mainland United States. With less advanced technology they could fly a fancy plane just as far. Until then, Kim Jong Un will be like your friend who should have gotten a drivers license years ago and needs rides everywhere.
Trump was right in his tweet when he said North Korea has so much potential. In recent years they have developed advanced cyber capabilities and missiles. Imagine what could be done if their talent was put to positive use.