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‘Air Force Un’: As North Korea’s leader steps onto international stage, a question over his ability to fly

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on Nov. 28, 2014.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on Nov. 28, 2014. (KCNA/Reuters)
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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 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.

Footage from North Korean propaganda gives us a glimpse inside the regime’s armored leadership train. The train may have paid a visit to Beijing this week, with mystery passengers on board. (Video: The Washington Post)

That has raised a question about how Kim, who made his first trip since coming to power 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, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies 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 put sanctions on 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 fundamental dichotomy of North Korea: the leader’s attempts to modernize the regime’s image abroad while presiding over a nation where the vast majority of the 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 several ­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 an 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 Il-62, a Soviet-manufactured long-range 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 S. Bermudez, an author who contributes to 38 North, a website on North Korean affairs run by the U.S.-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 Perrella arrived in Pyongyang, “only a very small portion” of Air Koryo’s two dozen planes appeared operational, he said in an interview. The others were parked on the 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 probably could 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 generally are used to lure aviation tourists, he said, but the newer planes have made trips to Kuwait, where North Korea provides low-wage workers, and to Kuala Lumpur, 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 because of 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 Vladivostok, Russia, just over 400 miles from Pyongyang.

There have been some mishaps. In 2014, Choe Ryong-hae, the second highest-ranking North Korean official, was turned back on a flight to Moscow when his Il-62 had mechanical problems. In 2016, an Air Koryo plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Shenyang, China, after a fire started on board. A year later, the same plane — reportedly a Tupolev — was grounded after a wing flap fell off during flight.

Other options for Kim, such as borrowing a plane from Russia or China, would raise additional security concerns, experts said, including the likelihood that the aircraft would be bugged. Besides, “it would probably not be the kind of signal you’d want to send to his domestic audience, if he got off a foreign plane,” said Curtis Melvin, editor of the North Korean Economy Watch blog.

And after the summit was over, Kim would “have to return it,” Melvin added. “God knows how that would go.”