When Prime Minister Koizumi boards his government plane to fly to Pyongyang on Tuesday for a landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, he should sit back and enjoy the journey.
Flying highlights the geographic closeness between the two countries, according to Manabu Ouchi, managing director of All Nippon Airways, who has piloted three flights to Pyongyang.
“The runway at the airport in Pyongyang is well-maintained and I don’t think there will be any problems with the flight,” Ouchi said.
In preparation for Koizumi’s visit to North Korea, Japan will conduct a one-day test flight on Sunday between Tokyo and Pyongyang with the special government aircraft, government sources said.
Japan plans to use the flight to verify a number of details, such as the condition of the airport facilities.
On Tuesday, Koizumi is scheduled to leave Tokyo’s Haneda airport at 6:30 a.m. and arrive at Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport at 9:15 a.m. He is to return to Haneda airport the same day.
The trip will mark the first time a Japanese prime minister has visited the country.
In October 1990, before ANA started operating chartered flights to Pyongyang, Ouchi checked the flight route by getting into the cockpit of a Chinese aircraft bound for Pyongyang.
Ouchi said he was impressed that the instructions he heard from North Korean air traffic control were in clear English.
Ouchi has piloted other flights since then, including a chartered flight to Pyongyang carrying a delegation of Japanese lawmakers.
“When descending toward the airport in Pyongyang, one can see an excellent 4,000-meter-long runway ahead. There were few other aircraft flying and only a few on the ground,” he said.
The current route to Pyongyang from Japan is over Tottori Prefecture, across the Sea of Japan and through South Korean airspace before arriving in Pyongyang, according to airline companies.
But up until the early 1990s, planes for Pyongyang had to fly other routes, including over the Russian city of Vladivostok.
According to Ouchi, there have been some mishaps. Once, when he spoke to Russian air traffic controllers in English, he received responses in Russian. When he got someone to communicate with them in fluent Russian, the response was in English.
“In North Korea, air traffic controllers guide the path via radar and the runway at Pyongyang airport is equipped with an instrument landing system. If prior preparations are set, I think that as a pilot, there would be no problems with the flight,” Ouchi said.
It is hoped the Koizumi-Kim summit will lead to the resumption of talks to normalize bilateral ties and resolve a number of thorny issues.
Tokyo alleges that Japanese nationals were abducted by North Korean agents in the late 1970s and early 1980s, while Pyongyang is demanding a Japanese apology and compensation for its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
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