As the eyes of the world this week was on the historic summit in Singapore between the leaders of North Korea and the United States, the event was made possible thanks to a series of diplomatic events. The events that have transpired over the last year have taken the Asia-Pacific region from talks of war to one of the most unlikely meetings nobody could see happening so soon.
The meeting location of Singapore was chosen for the meeting between US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un due to its diplomatic relations with the two countries, which both countries were reported to have asked the city-state to host the event.
While most of the discussions have been made about the lead-up, near-cancellation, and the eventual event, the summit is a rare trip beyond North Korea for Kim Jong Un as leader of the country. President Trump’s arrival was straightforward as he arrived at Singapore’s Peya Lebar Airbase on Air Force One. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un arrived at Changi Airport not on a North Korean flagged plane, but an Air China 747.
North Korea’s Air Force Un
The use of the Air China 747 – an American made aircraft – is a surprise to many as Kim has his own jet for his travels. North Korea’s own version of Air Force One is a Soviet-made Illyushin 62 named Chammae-1. Commercially, the Illyushin aircraft was first made in the 1960s. In the past, it was used prominently by Russian carrier Aeroflot and currently by Air Koryo. Until 2011, North Korean leaders including Kim, and his father Kim Jong Un would usually take a train throughout the country. The first use of the current Illyushin aircraft as a transport for the North Korean leader was on a trip to China in 2011.
While Chammae-1 could make the over 3000 mile trip to Singapore from Korea, production ended on the Illyushin aircraft in the 1990s. Should there be any problems on the way, parts would not be readily available and fixes could cause delays. With the summit being planned for months, any delays could throw off the planned and scheduled summit.
China’s VIP Transport
On the weekend before the summit, aviation enthusiasts spotted an Air China 747-400 flying from Beijing to Pyongyang on flight tracking app Flightradar24. A week before the summit, Air China resumed regular air services between the two cities using smaller Boeing 737s on the route, so the 747 caught ever observer’s attention. The 747 was on the ground at Pyongyang’s airport for about an hour and a half before it departed, and flew a route back to Beijing. As it approached Beijing, the aircraft changed its flight number and made a turn to Singapore.
The Air China 747 used by Kim Jong Un is not just any regular jumbo jet. It is one of four 747s that are used by the top party leaders of China, including President Xi Jinping. When they are not used for carrying China’s top government officials, they can be flown on regular commercial Air China flights. The aircraft’s interior could be converted to a private plane with an office, reception area, and a bedroom.
The Illyusin aircraft and a transport plane did make the trip to Singapore, carrying the rest of North Korea’s delegation and Kim's private limo. On the previous day, an Air China A330 flew the same route between Beijing and Singapore a day prior which many aviation observers suggested could be carrying part of the North Korean delegation.
In a report by The Straits Times, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said North Korea requested the help of China for their delegation's travels to Singapore. "At the request of the DPRK (North Korea), the Civil Aviation Administration of China provided the relevant service to the country's delegation travelling to Singapore" said Mr. Geng.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also reported on Monday that Mr Kim, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, had left the country on a "Chinese plane for his personal use"