Tuesday’s crash of a North Korean military plane in Liaoning is a messy business all round. The assumption is that the pilot, who was killed when the plane ploughed into a house in rural Fushun county, was a defector. If so, Pyongyang won’t be happy that one of its pilots took flight in this way (the last one was in 1996), or that the picture now doing the rounds of the Internet shows an antiquated Soviet-era plane from its air force, an old MIG fighter jet or possibly a trainer, that apparently ran out of fuel while flying over China assumedly en route to Russia (all these assumptions coming out of unnamed South Korean intelligence sources). China has a repatriation agreement with North Korea, albeit one that is loosely enforced, whereas Russia does not, though in the circumstances that is now moot.
The nearest North Korean military base from which the plane could have taken off would be at Sinuiju, just inside North Korea’s border with China and 200 kms (125 miles) from the crash site. Flying north over Fushun would not have been the most direct route to the nearest Russian soil, though taking that would have meant heading north-east and flying parallel to the length of the North Korean border.
Beijing is now in contact with Pyongyang about the incident. Chinese state media have mentioned the crash only circumspectly. And questions are to be raised about how a foreign fighter jet made it 200 kms into Chinese airspace seemingly unchallenged. With the strained relations between the two putative allies not noticeably eased since Kim Jong Il’s visit to Beijing in May, both sides will want this latest incident to fade from view quickly.