North Korea is reported to be assembling 10 MAPO MiG-29 fighters from components bought from Russia, according to defence sources in South Korea.
Senior South Korean officials have told the local press that the government has confirmed the North's acquisition of MiG-29 components. It estimates that they are sufficient to assemble 10 aircraft. South Korea and the US intelligence services are trying to establish how North Korea paid for the aircraft.
The acquisition is a step towards Pyongyang's reported goal of building a force of 40 MiG-29s, says a government official. North Korea is believed already to have 25 MiG-29As and five MiG-29Us.
Diplomatic sources in South Korean capital Seoul say the sale could damage improved relations between South Korea and Moscow. A senior source says Russia is an important part of President Kim Dae-Jung's "sunshine policy" and the South Korean navy is looking at procuring three Russian submarines - "partly as a political gesture and partly cancelling some of Russia's huge debt to South Korea".
The revelations come on the heels of a storm over the illegal sale of at least 30 MiG-21s to North Korea by Kazakhstan, which has led to the sacking of the Kazakh defence minister, and the launch of a criminal investigation (Flight International, 25-31 August).
Japan, concerned over a perceived military build-up by North Korea, wants Kazakhstan to release details of the sale.