In the latest sign that the Singapore summit between the US and North Korea wouldn't be happening without China's permission, China's leaders are reportedly considering whether to send fighter jets to escort North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as he travels through Chinese airspace during his trip to the island city-state, according to the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper with close ties to the regime.
"Escorting [a head of state] with jets is one of the highest security protocols that the air force can provide," a South Korean source told SCMP.
Other high-ranking South Korea sources reportedly speculated that China is looking to send a clear message: This summit wouldn't be possible without our explicit approval. "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 Jong Un is famously paranoid about his security. In his first documented trip outside North Korea since ascending to the position of head of state, Kim traveled to China in secret aboard an armored private train. Details of Kim's route as he travels to Singapore will be handled with the utmost secrecy (Singapore is roughly 4,000 km - or 2,490 miles - from Pyongyang). The regime is taking "extra care" to ensure that the 34-year-old leader makes it to the summit in one piece.
"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.
Meanwhile, as preparations for the summit continue, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan is traveling to Pyongyang for a brief meeting with the North Korean leadership. Balakrishnan will meet with Ri Yong-ho and Kim Yong-nam, NK's foreign minister and the president of the Supreme People's Assembly. The two sides will likely finalize security preparations during the meeting.
While it's common for foreign leaders to be escorted by air force jets, it's unusual for those jets to belong to a third-party country, said Hong Kong-based analyst Song Zhongping
"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.
Despite Beijing taking the issue under serious consideration, it's unlikely that Chinese jets will be able to escort Kim all the way to his destination. While China controls most of the South China Sea, once the jets enter Singaporean air space, it will become the duty of the Singaporean government to safeguard KJU. Though one analyst pointed out that the presence of the jets likely wouldn't be a contentious issue since they will be unarmed, according to Yue Gang, a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel who is now a military analyst.
During Kim's first overseas flight when he visited the Chinese coastal city of Dalian, he rode aboard what the SCMP referred to as "North Korea's Air Force One" - a four-engine modified Soviet jet Ilyushin Il-62M.
In a sign of just how seriously authorities in Singapore are taking security ahead of the summit, the Daily Beast is reporting that police in Singapore have arrested a Hong Kong-based entertainer who's known for his impersonation of Kim Jong Un.
Indeed, the resemblance is striking:
The impersonator was detained at Changi Airport on Tuesday. "They asked me about what my political views were and if I had been involved with protests or riots in other countries. I feel they were trying to intimidate me, but if I got deported it would have been big news." Howard said he was released after two hours. For those keeping track at home, that's the same airport that Kim is expected to fly into on Sunday ahead of the summit. The US has Paya Lebar air base nearby, which includes white-topped helicopters commonly used for transporting high-ranking officials. But it's unclear what security protocols Trump will be using, according to Reuters.