SEOUL AIR SHOW: North Korea’s desperate air force

Pyong chol.jpgNorth Korea last week moved fighters – perhaps MiG-23s? — to an air base near a disputed maritime border with its southern neighbour. It was all part of a sudden burst of saber-rattling, which included deployments of missiles and mobile launchers. North Korea media howled that military drills in the South were threatening, and protested that peace messages falling from hot air balloons launched across the DMZ were annoying. Whatever the source of all the fuss, it’s either quieted down or retreated into closed diplomatic channels. Don’t be alarmed. It’s just an average mid-October on the peninsula.

That North Korea was able to move its fighters around at all may be the only real surprise. For all of its provocations, the North Korean air force is shockingly weak — and increasingly desperate. In August, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that North Korean air force commander Ri Pyong-chol accompanied Kim Jong-Il to a summit with Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev. Pyong-chol (above, center) was photographed by Russian media wearing a civilian suit, not his air force uniform. Jong-Il was also reported to have visited a Russian aircraft factory at Novosibirsk, where Sukhoi manufactures the Su-34 fighter-bomber.

South Korea’s military has clearly taken notice. In a seminar on the sidelines of the Seoul Air Show on 17 October, Taekyu Reu, of the Agency for Defense Development, showed a chart listing a possible F-X fighter programme in North Korea. The chart also lists a possible F-22 sale to Japan — despite the planned shutdown of the Lockheed Martin production line next year and the US government’s official ban on F-22 exports. That means the chart is either out-dated or perhaps South Korean military planners still don’t rule out the possibility. The J-20 photo suggests the chart is no more than 10 months old. Either way, it’s another confirmation that North Korea is on the market for fighters.

Korea fighter chart.jpgChina has reportedly already rebuffed Jong-Il’s requests to import the Chengdu J-10 or J-11. Russia is not expected to be a motivated seller either. After all, North Korea is what Strategy Page calls one of the world’s most difficult customers. There is also the possibility that the Pyong-chol appeared in Russia not to beg for new fighters, but for spare parts and upgrades for existing Russian-built fleet, which also includes MiG-29s, MiG-21s and MiG-17s.

, , ,

Leave a Reply