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How North Korea’s Fighter Fleet Re-emerged From Obscurity

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How North Korea’s Fighter Fleet Re-emerged From Obscurity

Pyongyang’s threats to respond to alleged airspace violations evoke the history of air battles with the United States.

How North Korea’s Fighter Fleet Re-emerged From Obscurity

An RC-135 Rivet Joint on final approach at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, Feb. 6, 2019. North Korea claims an RC-135 conducted close surveillance of its territory earlier this month.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Balon Greyjoy

On July 10, the North Korean Defense Ministry alleged that U.S. military drones and reconnaissance aircraft had conducted close-up surveillance of North Korea for eight consecutive days from July 2 to 9, with one aircraft having “illegally intruded into the inviolable airspace of the DPRK… [by] tens of kilometers.” (DPRK is an abbreviation of North Korea’s formal name: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)

In response, a Defense Ministry spokesperson warned of the potential for retaliatory measures, stating: “The U.S. will surely have to pay a dear price for its provocative air espionage, frantically staged even invading the opposite side’s air space without previous notice. There is no guarantee that such a shocking accident as downing of the U.S. Air Force strategic reconnaissance plane will not happen in the East Sea of Korea [Sea of Japan].”

Tensions between Pyongyang and Washington have risen steadily under the Biden administration, culminating in the largest ever joint South Korea-U.S. live fire exercises in May and the deployment of a U.S. Navy Ohio-class nuclear attack submarine to Korean waters the following month. Unlike the previous period of high tensions in 2016-2017, however, in the current standoff North Korean aviation assets have been particularly active, indicating a degree of recovery in their operational capabilities.

In the first week of October 2022 the Korean People’s Army Air Force (KPAAF) deployed combat aircraft for air-to-surface firing drills near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, leading South Korea to scramble 30 F-15K fighters, which resulted in an hour long standoff.

The following week, state media published footage showing several combat jets deployed for large scale exercises near the DMZ. The exercises followed the publication of footage five months prior showing Su-25 attack jets firing salvos of short range rockets at target ranges for similar ground attack exercises.

In response to the initiation of U.S.-led Vigilant Storm air exercises from October 31, involving over 240 combat aircraft and simulating mass strikes on northern targets, North Korea on November 4 scrambled approximately 180 fighters for operations near the DMZ. This led the U.S. and South Korea to extend their exercises by one day to November 5. The northern show of force involved fighters from multiple classes, including newer MiG-29 and MiG-23MLs and much older Vietnam War era aircraft.

The following month, on December 26, North Korean drones flew into South Korean airspace between the cities of Gimpo and Paju, reaching the capital Seoul and evading over 100 rounds of air-to-air fire from South Korean 20mm guns. The North Korea drones reportedly flew near key administrative areas in central Seoul in an apparent show of force. The incident prompted a significant escalation in South Korean investments in air defense capabilities and the creation of a new drone command.

North Korean combat aviation, although seriously hindered by a lack of major aircraft acquisitions since the 1990s, has shown signs of improvements to its capabilities, after the economic crisis in the aftermath of the Cold War seriously undermined training levels and availability rates. One notable indication of the attention it has received is the work done to modernize Sunchon Airfield, the results of which are visible by satellite. Located 45 kilometers northeast of Pyongyang, the key airfield hosts many of the country’s higher end combat jets and saw its main runway lengthened and aircraft taxiways, shelters, and aprons improved.

Another notable indicator was the appearance of new indigenous air-to-air missile classes in October 2021 at the National Defense Development Exhibition Self Defense 2021. These included a new infrared guided missile loosely resembling the British AIM-132 and Chinese PL-10, and a beyond-visual-range active radar guided missile potentially providing an analogue to the American AIM-120 or Chinese PL-12. With investments having already been made to modernize the avionics of newer fighters in the fleet, new missiles could allow them to pose significantly greater threats in air-to-air combat, where their older Soviet-supplied munitions are considered obsolete.

With North Korean aviation gaining attention it has not seen in decades, threats to not only intercept but actively target U.S. military aircraft strongly evoke the clashes between the two countries that were common in the 1960s.

After receiving state of the art MiG-21 fighters from the Soviet Union from 1963, North Korea quickly deployed them to intercept U.S. aircraft that it claimed violated its airspace. North Korean fighter pilots flying MiG-21s also flew sorties on behalf of North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Notable incidents involving North Korean pilots flying for North Vietnam included the shootdowns of an RF-4C reconnaissance aircraft on August 31, 1967, an F-105D fighter five months later on January 14, 1968 and an F-4B fighter the following month on February 12.*

The most notable incident occurred on April 15, 1969 when the United States suffered its greatest combat loss in the air of the entire Cold War.** Thirty sailors and one marine were killed when MiG-21s fired on a U.S. Navy EC-121 surveillance aircraft. Pyongyang claimed the aircraft had violated its airspace while the United States maintained that it had been over international waters. Tensions would subside the following decade, although a MiG-21 did shoot down a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter on July 14, 1977, near or within its airspace.

Providing rare insight into the rationale behind North Korea’s particularly active defense of its airspace, then-Foreign Minister Pak Seong Cheol informed Soviet Ambassador Sudarikov regarding the EC-121 shootdown incident in 1969:

If the Americans had decided to fight then [when the EC- 121 was shot down], we would have fought… We wage firefights with the Americans in the area of the 38th parallel almost every day. When they shoot, we also shoot… But no special aggravation arises from this… We’ve also shot down American planes before, and similar incidents are possible in the future… It’s good for them to know that we won’t sit with folded arms… If we sit with folded arms when a violator intrudes into our spaces, two planes will appear tomorrow, then four, five, etc. This would lead to an increase of the danger of war. But if a firm rebuff is given, then this will diminish the danger of an outbreak of war. When the Americans understand that there is a weak enemy before them they will start a war right away. If, however, they see that there is a strong partner before them, this delays the beginning of war.

In the Vietnam War years, KPA units flew MiG-21s against U.S. fighters both in Korea and abroad, including over Vietnam, Syria, and Egypt. But by the late 1970s the fighter class was far from the dominant force it had once been, which limited the North Korean fleet’s air defense capabilities. The result was the beginning of an increased dependence on ground-based air defense assets, with the country’s surface-to-air missile network considered among the very densest in the world built around the Soviet S-75 system. This asset was employed to attempt to intercept a U.S. SR-71 surveillance aircraft that had penetrated deep into North Korean airspace on August 26, 1981, after Pyongyang had lodged 19 complaints regarding the class’ airspace violations. In trying to engage the world’s fastest and highest flying jet, the 1950s S-75 system gained a near miss after reportedly being disrupted by electronic warfare systems.

North Korea would acquire new combat jets later in the decade and into the 1990s after improving ties with Moscow, including a regiment each of MiG-23s and Su-25s, one to two regiments’ worth of MiG-29s, and later from Kazakhstan a MiG-21bis regiment. The Soviet Union’s disintegration, however, and Western and South Korean pressure on Moscow over arms sales, ultimately prevented Pyongyang from modernizing a greater portion of its fleet or acquiring newer aircraft such as MiG-29SMTs. The imposition of arms embargoes by the United Nations Security Council in 2006 and 2009 ensured the fleet’s position would continue to diminish.

The last significant operation by North Korea’s fighter fleet was the interception of a U.S. RC-135 surveillance aircraft by four MiG-29 fighters in March 2003. The North Korea fighters came within 5 meters of the RC-135 and shadowed the aircraft for 22 minutes. This led the U.S. Air Force to provide fighter escorts for its future surveillance flights. The close interception came at a time of heightened tensions with the George W. Bush administration. U.S. officials withdrew from the Agreed Framework nuclear deal and increasingly indicated military action against Pyongyang was being seriously considered.

A very different international political climate today, and the much more limited standing of its fighter fleet, means North Korean fighter shootdowns of manned U.S. aircraft as seen in the 1960s remain highly unlikely. Close interceptions like that seen in March 2003, however, remain highly possible. Conducting aggressive maneuvers to disrupt the operations of drones, as Russia has done over the Black Sea and Syria, also remains a possibility should Korean pilots be trained for such forms of flying in their MiG-29s.

The renewed operations of North Korea’s fighter fleet could indicate greater levels of funding allocated to its operations and likely its modernization as well. The fleet’s position, however, is very far from what it was in the 1960s, when its top fighters were able to go head to head with those of the United States, and ranked far ahead of neighboring China. Today, North Korea’s top MiG-29 units are now at least a full generation behind both countries – with other fighter classes being two or more generations behind. Nevertheless, as Ukraine has demonstrated over the past 18 months with a much smaller but similarly obsolete fleet, even old combat jets can make valuable contributions to wars where they are overwhelmingly outmatched, particularly in air-to-surface roles.

North Korean airspace is far from unprotected. Like Russia, it has come to rely very heavily on new mobile ground-based air defense systems to phase out Cold War era assets like the S-75 and counter U.S. air power asymmetrically. Having made significant technological leaps in the capabilities of its surface-to-air missile network, it could well be these assets rather than the fighter fleet that are activated to shoot down enemy assets should Pyongyang decide to take such action. While even its MiG-29s can pose only a limited threat in air-to-air combat with their 1980s Soviet sensors and missiles, the much more sophisticated surface-to-air network could well be the true successor of the MiG-21 fleet in its role should Pyongyang seek to again draw a hard line against violations of its airspace.

*This paragraph has been updated to clarify that these incidents occurred over Vietnam. 

**The date of the shootdown has been corrected.