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China may send fighter jet escort for Kim Jong-un when he flies to Singapore to meet Trump

Kim Jong-un arriving at Dalian airport on May 8 on North Korea's Air Force One. Photo: EPA-EFE/KCNA

China could send fighter jets to escort Kim Jong-un when North Korea’s Air Force One travels through its airspace for a meeting in Singapore with US President Donald Trump, a South Korean military source said, as Beijing tries to boost its influence over the regime ahead of the summit.

“Escorting [a head of a state] with jets is one of the highest security protocols that the air force can provide,” a source with the South Korean Air Force told the South China Morning Post.

“If China does provide the escort, it may be a message directed at the US-ROK alliance that China is strongly backing up the Kim regime,” the source said, referring to South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.

Kim is known for being paranoid about his personal security, and details of the route he will take to reach the Southeast Asian city state – which is more than 4,000km from Pyongyang – for Tuesday’s meeting are not known. But people familiar with Kim family security matters said Pyongyang would take “extra care” to ensure the safety of the North Korean leader, who is believed to be about 34.

“The number of guards and Kim’s travel routes will be North Korea’s biggest security concern in Singapore,” said Lee Yun-keol, who worked in a North Korean Supreme Guard Command unit – the personal bodyguard force tasked with protecting the Kim family – before defecting to South Korea in 2005.

“Kim is also likely to fly to Singapore through China’s airspace to ensure his security, so that he gets China’s protection on his way to Singapore,” Lee said.

Preparations are continuing for the summit, with Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan travelling to Pyongyang on Thursday for a two-day visit as part of the diplomatic flurry.

Balakrishnan will meet his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho and Kim Yong-nam, president of the Supreme People’s Assembly and the country’s ceremonial head of state, according to a Singaporean government statement.

Specific security arrangements are likely to be discussed and finalised during Balakrishnan’s visit.

The flight path to be taken by a state leader on an overseas trip is always carefully planned and not revealed, and it is not unusual for such flights to be escorted by air force fighter jets when they visit a country, according to Hong Kong-based military analyst Song Zhongping.

But it was not common for jets to be sent to escort a foreign leader’s plane when they were en route to a third country, Song said.

“Usually, a leader’s plane will have a close escort by air force fighter jets before they arrive at the border, and usually the host country will send fighters to wait for them at the border – it’s like a relay in the air,” Song said.

“So theoretically it will be the duty of the Singaporean government to escort Kim’s plane when it enters Singaporean airspace,” Song said.

While it is unlikely Chinese fighter jets will escort Kim’s plane all the way into Singapore because of territorial airspace rules, they will be able to travel close to the city state’s border due to Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea, said Yue Gang, a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel and Beijing-based military analyst.

“The fighter jets will be flying in China’s airspace and they won’t have any offensive capabilities so it will be unlikely to cause any disputes,” Yue said.

On what was believed to be his first overseas trip by plane as leader, Kim travelled to Chinese coastal city Dalian – just 360km from Pyongyang – in early May on the Chammae-1, referred to as North Korea’s Air Force One.

With a range of about 10,000km, the four-engine, modified Soviet jet Ilyushin Il-62M will be able to make a non-stop journey from North Korea to Singapore.

Making the surprise trip to Dalian by plane instead of by train, the Kim family’s usual preference, prompted speculation that the North Korean leader could be preparing to meet Trump further afield before the location for the on-again, off-again meeting was announced.

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