Fear of flying? Not for North’s young leader

AFP-JIJI

A new photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un disembarking from a plane suggests he doesn’t share his father Kim Jong Il’s near-obsessive fear of flying.

The ruling party’s official daily, Rodong Sinmun, ran a large color picture Wednesday of Kim stepping down the red-carpeted stairs from a civilian aircraft at Samjiyon, near the Chinese border. It is believed to be the first picture of Kim traveling by air, something his father, whom he succeeded as leader in December 2011, resolutely refused to do.

Over the course of seven trips to China, including his last visit in 2010, as well as a month-long trip to Russia in 2001, Kim Jong Il always stuck to his preferred mode of long-distance travel — a customized, armored train carriage.

His choice was not just down to a reportedly deep-rooted dread of flying, but also fear of assassination.

Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, the country’s founder Kim Il Sung, flew regularly and the new photo of Kim disembarking reinforced efforts by the young leader to project himself more in the image of the grandfather than the father.

Kim Jong Un bears a striking physical resemblance to the young Kim Il Sung, which he has underlined with his style of dress and haircut.

Like his grandfather, he does not shy away from public speeches and is regularly seen hugging and posing for photos with soldiers.

Kim Jong Il was far more aloof, and only spoke once at a major public event during his 17 years in power.

Kim Jong Un’s wife also has a far higher public profile than Kim Jong Il’s spouse, who was a totally anonymous figure.

In a meeting with top military leaders Tuesday, the young North Korean leader warned of a “very grave” situation on the Korean Peninsula, where a surge in military tensions has seen the two Koreas trade artillery fire and Pyongyang threaten a new nuclear test.

On Monday, North Korea conducted a live-fire drill along the disputed maritime border. After some shells crossed the boundary, South Korea responded and the two sides fired hundreds of artillery rounds into each other’s territorial waters.

The exchange of fire came a day after North Korea sounded an ominous warning that it might carry out a “new” type of nuclear test — a possible reference to testing a uranium-based device or a miniaturized warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.

Although South Korean intelligence reports say there are no signs of an imminent test, analysts note that the North is treading a familiar path that has previously ended in an underground bunker.