April 14, 2015 12:45
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has recently tested a "homegrown" light aircraft as part of a series of demonstrations that unlike his father and grandfather he has no fear of flying.
State media on April 1 carried footage of Kim in the cockpit flying the plane with the help of a pilot. The official Rodong Sinmun claimed North Korea produces military aircraft as well as light planes -- an unlikely claim but the first time it has been put forward.
"The North started producing military helicopters on its own some 10 years ago," a source said. "In case of aircraft, the North was merely repairing aircraft and assembling parts, but now the aviation industry seems to have developed to the extent that it can produce light aircraft because Kim has recently taken an interest in aviation."
Kim reportedly ordered officials to produce light aircraft last year.
Kim was apparently keen to dispel the impression given by foreign news reports in January that he only uses American-made planes. In March last year, Kim was seen in an American-made Cessna 172 Skyhawk.
"It's difficult to tell if Kim can really pilot an airplane or was only posing for a photo opportunity while the real pilot in the copilot's seat did all the work," the source said.
But Kim has certainly taken an interest in aviation since he was a child. Back in April last year, North Korean media carried two photos of him in Air Force uniform when he was four or five years old, and another in a cockpit when he was a teenager.
Kim uses his Air Force One to travel a distance that would take about two hours by car and recently inspected a construction site in downtown Pyongyang from the air.
In part his stress on aviation is a way of portraying himself as a modern leader, whereas his father and grandfather traveled by special armored train even when visiting China or Russia.
One reason is that they did not trust North Korean pilots, though in Kim Jong-il's case the fear of flying seems to have had a pathological dimension.
Kim Jong-il first went to China by train when he was still heir apparent in June 1983. The fear of flying may have been triggered when he and his father Kim Il-sung witnessed the explosion of their exclusive jet in midair in 1982.
The jet, imported from the Soviet Union, exploded in midair during a test flight. After being told that the accident was caused by the pilots' negligence, the Kims came to distrust North Korean pilots and disbanded their exclusive flight crew.
Kim Il-sung once traveled thousands of kilometers to the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact states in Eastern Europe. But Kim Il-sung still occasionally took a plane. In 1986 he visited Moscow to call on Mikhail Gorbachev for an urgent meeting but used a Russian pilot.
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