North Korea is one of the most closed societies in the world. Relying heavily on the ‘do-it-your-self’ ideology of Juche, North Korea has since the end of the Korean War in 1953 to an increasingly degree isolated itself from the rest of the world, although some trade links with a few countries, including China, are still being maintained.
In 1905, the Korean peninsula was occupied by Japan. When Japan surrendered in 1945, US and Soviet troops divided southern and northern parts of Korea between them. Eventually, two separate nations, North and South Korea were created out of the occupation zones. In June 1950, North Korean forces, supported by Soviet advisors, invaded South Korea. The United Nations (UN) put forward a resolution condemning the invasion. The Soviet delegate boycotted the voting, which meant that the resolution was passed. A military force consisting of troops from 17 nations, with the majority coming from the USA, was sent to Korea to stop and push back the North Korean invasion. The conflict, officially a ‘police-action’ ended in 1953 with a truce. North Korea and South Korea are technically still at war, with several border incidents occurring to this date.
Very little up-to-date and correct information on the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea Air Force (DPRKAF) exists. This is due to the secretive and enigmatic nature of the country’s regime. Although the DPRK air arm is, quantitatively, an impressive force, very few new aircraft have been received since the early 1990s. Only two modern types of combat aircraft are currently operated, namely the MiG-29 Fulcrum-A interceptor and Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft. However, supplies of Russian aircraft effectively ended in late 1992. A further difficulty occurred in January 1993, when special trade terms with China were withdrawn. As a result, lack of spares has had serious consequences for the capability and operational readiness of the air arm. A number of MiG-21s were acquired in 1999 from Kazakhstan.
In 2001, Russia offered upgrade packages, with further discussions occurring the following year. Nothing seems to have resulted from these talks. The current status of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea Air Force is open to conjecture, but it is likely that most of its aircraft have been grounded due to lack of spares and age. A few years ago, it was reported that the average DPRK air arm pilot amassed a mere 30 flight hours a year, which presumably has had a negative effect on pilot proficiency and operational capability. However, the selection criterion for serving in the DPRKAF are higher than those of other branches of the DPRK armed forces, it is likely that the air force staff in general has a higher degree of education, political conviction and proficiency, thus being more highly motivated and trained than its army and navy counterparts.
Beginnings of Military Aviation
Shortly after the arrival of Soviet forces in the northern part of Korea following the Japanese capitulation, former Imperial Japanese Army Air Force (IJAAF) bases at Pyongyang and Sinuiju were repaired. IJAAF units based in northern Korea included Nakajima Ki-43-II Hayabusa, Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki and Nakajima Ki-84 Hayate fighters of the 22nd, 25th and 85th Fighter Regiments, Mitsubishi Ki-67 Peggy medium bombers of the 60th Heavy Bomb Regiment, and Tachikawa Ki-54c and Mitsubishi Ki-57 light transports. Some Tachikawa Ki-9 Spruce primary trainers modified as kamikaze aircraft (fitted with ‘Ketsu’ suicide bombs) were also found. Reportedly, a few Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters were also found as well.
On 25 October 1945, the Sinuiju Aviation Unit was established, initially to meet civilian air transport demands. However, on 5 June 1946, the Sinuiju Aviation Unit was reformed as a military organization, being attached to Pyongyang Institute. In 1946, Korean pilots were sent to the USSR for flight training on the Yak-9 fighter. Some, if not all of the pilots had previously served with the Japanese army and naval air arms during the war.
Initially, a few former Japanese aircraft captured by Russian forces were incorporated into the newly-established North Korean Air Force, including Kokusai Ki-86 (the German-designed Bücker Bü 131 built under licence) and Tachikawa Ki-9 primary trainers, Tachikawa Ki-55 basic trainers, Tachikawa Ki-54 light transports and Nakajima Ki-43 fighters. On 20 August 1947, the aviation unit of the Pyongyang Institute was upgraded to formal military status, having been incorporated into the People’s Group Army already on 17 May 1947. Incidentally, since 1972, 20 August is celebrated as Air Force Day.
Initially, a single air regiment was formed. By late January 1950, the air regiment was expanded into a division, by order of Major General Wang Yong, the commander of the North Korean armed forces. At the time, the personnel strength was 1,700, including 76 pilots. With the expansion underway, additional aircraft began to arrive. The emphasis of the new air arm was army close-support. By mid-1950, around 180 aircraft of all types was in service. These included 70 Il-10 light attack aircraft, a similar number of Yak fighters and 30 Polikarpov Po-2 and Yakovlev Yak-18 training aircraft. Most of the Japanese aircraft had most likely been withdrawn from use, although at least one Tachikawa Ki-54 light transport and one Tachikawa Ki-55 basic trainer remained in use, being subsequently captured later that year by UN forces.
On 25 June 1950, North Korean ground and air forces attacked South Korea. The first air attack occurred when four NKAF Yak-9s strafed Kimpo airfield. The invasion was condemned by the United Nations, with a resolution issued by the Security Council paving the way for intervention by UN forces. In the event, a UN force consisting of 17 nations was committed to the conflict, including contingents from Australia, Great Britain, South Africa, Canada, Greece, Turkey and Ethiopia. However, the vast majority of the forces consisted of US troops. The DPRKAF was committed to operations from the start of the conflict.
During the initial stages of the Korean conflict, NKAF Yak-9 pilots claimed to have damaged or shot down a number of US aircraft, including Lee Don-gyu and his unnamed wingman, who on 29 June claimed a USAF F-80C Shooting Star and Kim Gi-ok or Lee Don-gyu who claimed a B-29 Superfortress (s/n 44-69866) on 12 July. Other UN aircraft claimed included a RAAF 77 sqdn P-51 Mustang (s/n A68-757) on 7 July, B-26 Invader s/n 44-34263, B-29 Superfortress s/n 44-61638 on 19 July and a Republic of Korea Air Force Stinson L-5 on 2 September. USAF records regarding losses are in conflict with several of the NKAF victory claims. The aerial war over the Korean peninsula in 1950-1953 has been covered by several authors, albeit most of these cover the operations of specific types of aircraft (particularly USAF and USMC) only. As a historical overview, Warren Thompson’s four-part study of the aerial war, published in Wings of Fame, can be recommended.
Most of the DPRKAF aircraft inventory had been lost by late July 1950, mostly due to air attacks against airfields. However, North Korean forces were initially successful, almost managing to occupy most of South Korea. Following the landings at Inchon, North Korean forces were pushed back. On 26 November 1950, China entered the war, resulting in a dramatic eascalation of the war. Communist Chinese fighter units, augmented by Soviet pilots and advisors breathed new life into the by then almost wiped-out DPRKAF. Most of the piston engine combat aircraft had been withdrawn from use by 1951/52, and replaced by Soviet-designed jet aircraft, including the MiG-15 fighter and Ilyushin Il-28 medium bomber. Due to the aerial superiority of the UN air forces, the DPRKAF sought sanctuary at Chinese bases north of the Yalu River. A joint operations headquarters for the North Korean, Chinese and Soviet forces was established at Shenyang.
Paradoxically, the most efficient combat aircraft of the DPRKAF appeared to be the Polikarpov Po-2. The Po-2 had been designed in the mid-1920s, and used for night intrusion raids, dropping light bombs and, while causing some material damage, was a thorn in the side of the UN soldiers, earning the nick-name ‘Bed check Charlie’. In late 1952, the Po-2s were augmented by Yak-18 basic trainers converted to carry light bombs.
DPRK Aircraft losses to UN aircraft 1950-1953
Type of aircraft 1950 1951 1952 1953 Total: Ilyushin Il-10 9 - 1 - 10 Ilyushin Il-12 - - - 1 1 Lavochkin La-7 3 - - - 3 Lavochkin La-9 - 3 3 - 6 Lavochkin 1 1 MiG-15 11 165 384 296 856 Polikarpov Po-2 - 4 1 1 6 Tupolev Tu-2 - 8 - 1 9 Yakovlev Yak-3 2 1 1 - 4 Yakovlev Yak-9 15 2 1 - 18 Yakovlev Yak-11 1 - - - 1 Yakovlev Yak-15 - - 1 - 1 Yakovlev Yak-18 - - - 2 2 Yak - 3 - 2 5 ‘Jet’ - - - 1 1 ‘Prop’ - - ½ 1 1.5 Ground kills 31 4 5 - 40 Total: 72 190 397.5 306 965.5
How many of these aircraft were formally part of the DPRKAF is unclear, but the Chinese aircraft operating over Korea all sported DPRKAF insignia. However, it may be presumed, that DPRKAF percentage (including level of influence of operations, and number of pilots and groundcrew assigned, etc) to the overall effort was fairly low from the autumn of 1950 and onwards.
On 27 July 1953, a truce was finally negotiated. However, North and South Korea remains divided along the 38th parallel. Indeed, the border between the two countries is the most highly militarized in the world, with thousands of troops on either side being kept in readiness for any sign of border intrusion.
After the Truce
Following the signing of the truce, the DPRKAF was expanded. The last few remaining Yak-9s and Il-10s were withdrawn from use by the mid-1950s. The DPRKAF was organized into Air Divisions, each of which counted a number of Air Regiments. In May 1955, General Han Il Mu became Commander-in-Chief of the DPRKAF, which further strengthened North Korean cooperation and reliance on, particularly, China and Soviet Union. By mid-1958, the DPRKAF had six Air Divisions, including three equipped with MiG-15/MiG-17 fighters, one Air Division with two regiments of Il-28 medium bombers and one regiment with Tupolev Tu-2s, while one Air Division had a mix of old Il-10s and MiG-15s. The aerial transport units were equipped with Lisunov Li-2s, Antonov An-2s as well as Ilyushin Il-14s. Flying training was performed on Yak-18 primary trainers and Yakovlev Yak-11 basic trainers, with the MiG-15UTI and Il-28U being used for conversion training. At this juncture, the DPRKAF was superior to the South Korean Air Force (ROKAF). The emphasis had by this time expanded from army close-support to the interception of foreign aircraft over or near North Korean airspace.
Incidents and shoot-downs
North Korea was actively intercepting US reconnaissance aircraft, resulting in a number of such incidents until the present day. On 16 June 1959, a US Navy Martin P4M-1Q Mercator reconnaissance aircraft (Bu 122209) was attacked by two DPRKAF MiG-17 Frescos some 50 miles east of the demilitarized zone. The tail gunner of the Mercator was seriously injured, while the starboard engine was damaged by gun fire from the MiGs. However, the crew managed to return to Miho AFB in Japan.
In 1961, North Korea and the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Mutual Assistance and Military Cooperation. As a result, the North Korean armed forces, including the DPRKAF, received a massive infusion of modern Soviet weaponry. Among the aircraft delivered were the first MiG-19 Farmer interceptors. However, the excellent relationship with the Soviet Union did not last long. Following the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by the Soviet Union and USA, North Korea severely criticized its Ally. Additionally, North Korea also claimed that the Soviet Union was over-charging for the supply of modern military equipment, including aircraft. Following this, supply of Soviet aircraft, fuel and spare parts were temporarily ended. As a result, relations between North Korea and China intensified. Incidentally, it is notable that no long range strike aircraft, such as the Tupolev Tu-16 Badger (also produced under licence in China as the Xian H-5) has never been supplied to the North Korean air arm.
Another DPRKAF attack on a US reconnaissance aircraft occurred on 27 April 1965, when an ERB-47H Stratojet (54-3290) was damaged over the Sea of Japan by two DPRKAF MiG-17s. Two of the ERB-47H engines were hit, while the tail gunner of the Stratojet returned fire, claiming to have inflicted damage to one of the North Korean MiG-17s. The crew managed to land the severely damaged Stratojet at Yokota AFB, Japan. However, the aircraft had to be scrapped due to structural damage.
In January 1968, the US spy ship was seized off the east coast of North Korea, causing a huge international incident. Further tension occurred on 15 April 1969, when a US Navy Lockheed EC-121M (Bu 135749) was shot down by two DPRKAF MiGs in the Sea of Japan, some 95 miles off Ch’ongjin, North Korea. All 31 crew perished. According to North Korean radio, the EC-121M had intruded into North Korean airspace, before being shot down at high altitude “with a single shot”, possibly indicating an air-to-air missile. Two bodies and some debris were eventually recovered by US search and rescue vessels. Tension on the 38th parallel remained high, and on 14 July 1977, a US Army CH-47C Chinook (67-18493) was shot down by a DPRKAF MiG-21 Fishbed. Three of the four crew were killed, while the pilot was captured, eventually being released after 57 hours.
From the late 1960s, DPRKAF pilots were reportedly seconded to the air arms of various Third World nations, including Egypt, Libya and Syria. Additionally, a number of North Korean advisors were reportedly sent to Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, attempting to rebuild a fixed-wing flight training school at Battambang.
By 1996, the DPRKAF was estimated to consist of six Air Divisions, three fighter, two transport and one fighter training. In October 1995, over 420 aircraft were redeployed in a major exercise, with some 100 aircraft being deployed to three air bases close to the demilitarized zone. Among these were about 20 Il-28 Beagle medium bombers deployed to Taetan air base, which in case of an attack would have reduced their time of arrival over the South Korean capitol Seoul from 30 minutes to six minutes. In May 2001, a DPRKAF delegation, headed by its Commander-in-Chief, General O Geum-cheol, visited Pakistan. Included in the visit was Sargodha air base, and the PAC aircraft production factory at Kamra, where the Mushak primary trainer was demonstrated. Incidentally, the remaining An-2 Colts, previously an almost ideal vehicle for agent insertion into South Korea, were grounded in 2007 due to the lack of Avgas.
Although no facilities for the production of complete aircraft apparently exists in North Korea, spares for many of the aircraft operated by the DPRKAF have been/are built at Tokhyon, and at a smaller factory in a suburb of Ch’onjin.
By 2009, it was estimated that the DPRKAF had between 1,200 and 1,500 aircraft in service (many of which were presumed to be unserviceable), with 110,000 personnel. It is estimated that around 70 airfields are available to the DPRKAF, many of which are forward air bases near the border with South Korea.The future for the DPRKAF is difficult to appraise. Relations with Soviet Union (from 1991 Russia) and China have changed considerably since the end of the Cold War. As a result, delivery of new aircraft has suffered, as well as pilot training. However, North Korea remains a closed country, ruled by a Communist dictatorship, with the 38th parallel being one of the last fronts of the Cold War. China, South Korea, Japan and the USA have all expressed concern over the recent nuclear weapons trials in North Korea, as well as the transfer of nuclear technology to other countries. Whatever the future may hold for North Korea, it is certain that the DPRKAF will continue to serve in the defence of the nation, despite the severe difficulties inflicted by the reduced military, political and trade relations with China and Russia.