SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of—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 U.S. 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’s 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 in March to Beijing to meet Xi.
Here are several things to know about the Kim family’s travel habits:
Kim’s official plane is a remodelled 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 kilometres per hour and carry about 200 people. Its maximum flight range is about 9,200 kilometres but it has reportedly never flown that far.
Some experts say one reason why North Korea apparently wants to have a Kim-Trump summit in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, is that Kim’s plane might not be able to fly to faraway places like 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.
Previous air travel
Schooled for several years in Switzerland, Kim is believed to have travelled by air many times during his teenage years.
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 plane, and walking with his wife, Ri Sol Ju, on a red carpet placed on an airstrip.
Other photos showed Kim in the cockpit of a fighter jet.
Different from his father
Before Kim’s Dalian trip, no North Korean leader had publicly gone abroad by air since Kim’s grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, flew to the Soviet Union in 1986.
Kim Jong Il flew by plane to a conference in Indonesia with Kim Il Sung, his father, in 1965. But after that he reportedly never flew because of a fear of heights. During his 1994-2011 rule, Kim Jong Il made about a dozen known overseas trips, mostly to China, and conducted countless inspections of military posts, factories and other places — all by train.
Analysts say Kim Jong Un’s air travel may be aimed at showing he’s a confident, normal leader who meets international standards.
South Korean media say Kim Jong Il had several luxurious trains equipped with reception halls, conference rooms and high-tech communication facilities. To guard against possible attacks, his train reportedly travelled with two other trains, with one running ahead of his to check the safety of the rail line while another carried security agents and followed behind. According to state media, Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack during a train trip.
When Kim Jong Un visited Beijing, which is much farther than Dalian, in March for talks with Xi in his first overseas trip since his inauguration, he took a deep green special train reminiscent of his father’s. Last month, he took a black Mercedes limousine to return home after a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a village along the Koreas’ border.