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KPAF - Modernization

North Korea produces no aircraft itself, although it does produce spare parts for many of its aircraft. The small village named Tokhyon on the way to Uiju from Sinjuiju is the home to North Korea"s largest munitions factory that produces aircraft. There is another aircraft plant in a suburb of Ch"ongjin, North Hamgyong Province. But it is far smaller than the Tokhyon plant in its size and history.

The mass introduction of arms from the Soviet Union played an important role in achieving the qualitative evolution of the KPA. Between 1951 and 1956, Kim received 800 Soviet aircraft, including fighters such as the MiG-15, MiG-17, and Yak-9 as well as interceptors, bombers, and helicopters.15 This reinforcement of air power and introduction of advanced weapons led to the marked progress of the KPA, and formed the essential foundation for its conventional military strength.

The North Korean aircraft fleet of Soviet and Chinese manufacture is primarily of 1950s and 1960s technology, with rudimentary avionics and limited weapons systems capability. In the mid- to late 1980s, the Soviet Union supplied a variety of a limited number of more modern all-weather air defense and ground attack aircraft. Most ground attack regiments have older model Soviet and Chinese light bombers and fighters with limited range and combat payloads.

The transport fleet has some Soviet transports from the 1950s and 1960s. The transport fleet has some 1950s- and 1960s-vintage former Soviet transports, including more than 270 An-2/COLT light transports and 10 An-24/COKEs. The COLT's ability to land on short, rough strips, makes it especially suited for the task of transporting SOF units. It can hold 10 combat troops and cruise at 160 kilometers (km) an hour. The NKAF has at least six COLT regiments and at least six regiments of attack and transport helicopters.

The Soviet and Chinese-made equipment the NKAF is armed with comprises mostly obsolete types that are not suitable for the modern combat environment. However by the beginning of the 1980's, the NKAF began a new round of modernization: in addition to 150 MiG-21's, the NKAF received from the USSR a batch of 60 MiG-23P fighter-bombers and MiG-23ML close-support fighters and from China - 40 Q-5 Fantan ground attack planes (There is some discprenancy about this number. One source lists North Korea as receiving 150 Q-5's while most others believe that number to be 40). These elite 56th Guards and 57th Fighter Regiments are equipped with MiG-29 and MiG-23 and are based near Pyongyang to defend the capital.

P'yongyang was rather late in recognizing the full potential of the helicopter. During the 1980s, the NKAF substantially increased its helicopter inventory from 40 to about 300. Helicopters in service include Mi-2/HOPLITE, Mi-4/HOUND, and Mi-8/HIP.

In 1985, North Korea circumvented United States export controls to indirectly buy eighty-seven United States manufactured civilian versions of the Hughes MD-500 helicopters before the United States government stopped further deliveries. These helicopters are considerably more advanced than those received from the Russians. Although the DPRK has the civilian version, they probably have modified some of them to carry guns and rockets. Reports indicate that at least sixty of the helicopters delivered were modified as gunships.

Because South Korea licenses and produces the MD-500 for use in its armed forces, the modified helicopters were useful in North Korea's covert or deceptive operations. Because the ROK produces the same model helicopter for its armed forces, the DPRK could modify their Hughes helicopters to resemble the ROK counterparts to confuse CFC air defenses during SOF operations.

Kazakh arms deliveries to North Korea were accompanied by rather loud scandals that spoiled Kazakhstan's image on the international arena. There are two known major arms deals with North Korea. The second contract for approximately $8 million for 40 MiG-21 fighters was signed in 1998, and the planes delivered the following year. The decision to sell excess outdated warplanes was made in 1996. The Kazakh government issued a resolution on the exportation of 133 MiG-21 aircraft decommissioned from the national Air Force. It expected that the sales would bring about $28 million to state coffers.

The contract signed on 14 October 1998 stipulated that 40 MiG-21 aircraft be delivered to Agroplast, a Czech firm acting as an intermediary for North Korea. The US Government did impose and then waive sanctions against the Kazakhstan Government, which had been cooperating closely with the US in the investigation follow up on this sale. The government candidly admitted that the transfer occurred contrary to official government policy. In March 1999, an international scandal followed the discovery of six disassembled MiG-21s and their spare parts aboard a Ruslan transport aircraft at Baku city airport. After an investigation the MiGs were returned to Kazakhstan and the An-124 released.

In the summer of 1999, a total of 33 MiG-21 fighters were sent from Taldy-Kurgan by rail to North Korea via China. A new scandal broke out, this time initiated by South Korea. North Korea flatly denied the importation of the fighters or any contacts with Kazakhstan on the issue. When Kazakhstan found itself under strong political pressure from the United States, it missed the chance of defending its interests given the absence of a tough stance of its leadership and the lack of professionalism of its diplomats.

Kazakhstan transferred lethal military equipment, specifically about 40 MiG-21 fighter aircraft, to North Korea. The Kazakhstani government finally admitted that the MiGs were sold to North Korea and that five shipments of a total of 30 MiG-21s had successfully taken place. In November 1999 the US Government imposed sanctions on the firms directly involved in the transactions -- the Kazakhstan-owned Uralsk Plant Metallist and the private Czech firm Agroplast and against certain Agroplast officials.

North Koreas smuggling operation has had many successes in obtaining spare parts for its aging air force. But sometimes these efforts fail in a spectacular way. Mongolia, because of a 1979 agreement, cannot transfer Russian military equipment to another country unless they have the permission of Russia. Brig. Gen. Tojoon Dashdeleg was unable to obtain that permission because Russia has been cooperating with the embargo of military sales to North Korea.

In 2011, North Korea attempted to buy 20 disused MiG-21 aircraft for $1.5 million from Mongolia for "engines and scrap". In early 2013 a probe was launched against Dashdeleg and two private businessmen. The deal resurfaced in November 2012 when a North Korean envoy complained to Mongolian officials that Pyongyang had paid but never received the parts. The engines and scrap were shipped to North Korea by way of China but never arrived. Dashdeleg was only able to offer to give half the money back (in an attempt to reduce the punishment he was facing for corruption).

A North Korean vessel, the Chong Chon Gang, was interdicted by the Panamanian authorities transporting arms from Cuba in July 2013. A total of 25 shipping containers have now been recovered from the hold of the Chong Chon Gang, as well as six military vehicles. The shipping containers were camouflaged at the bottom of five of the ships holds beneath about 200,000 bags of sugar, weighing approximately one hundred pounds each. This amount of sugar together with two thousand empty polyethylene bags were the only declared items listed in the cargo manifest signed by North Korean Captain Ri Yong Il.

Following the seizure, Cuban authorities released a statement claiming that the ship was transporting two anti-aircraft missile complexes nine missiles in parts and spares, two Mig-21 jet aircraft and 15 motors for this type of airplane to be repaired and returned to Cuba.

But Hugh S.W Griffiths Senior Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs 26 September 2013 " .... the MIG fuselages were rather carelessly packed with no protective padding covering the more sensitive extremities of the fuselage that could have been damaged should the ship have encountered rough seas on its voyage across the Pacific. In contrast, the engines were stored in shipping containers separate from the aircraft fuselages. More securely attached and adequately spaced, they were also covered in layers of protective plastic sheeting and brown packing paper... The more careful packing of the engines suggests their end use as replacement engines while the sloppy packing of the fuselages indicates their intended use as spare parts."

In the Chinese view, Soviet military aid to Pyongyang, which included SA-5 surface-to-air missiles and Mig-29 fighter aircraft, resulted in a greater Soviet military presence in North Korea. The MiG-29 is the KPAF's most modern fighter, possessing all types of modern avionics and weaponry. North Korea operates approximately 30 MiG-29B/UB's, which are in flying condition and are used mostly for the defence of Pyongyang's airspace. No other MiG-29 variants are confirmed to be flown, owned or purchased by the KPAF. However photographs obtained by a US RC-135 aircraft intercepted by MiG-29's in 2003 suggests that the KPAF may operate some MiG-29C's.

Having more or less mastered the maintenance old Soviet and Chinese aircraft (MiG-19 and MiG-21, and their Chinese clone MiG-23 P/ML), the North Korean defense industry is still incapable of producing modern aircraft. The high-water mark remains the assembly of Mig-29 fighters (30 9-12B and 9-13 versions) from kits supplied by the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. These engineering capabilities now underpin the countrys most combat capable air units equipped with MiG-29s and Su-25 assault aircraft.

North Korea (DPRK) claims to have lethal drones within its arsenal. During a 2013 parade and military drill, it displayed several MQM-107 Streakers, a 1970s-era U.S. target drone it supposedly acquired from Syria. It is unconfirmed if the drones are currently capable of conducting lethal operations, but it is only a matter of time before the DPRK can refit these older style drones into a lethal weapon. The sophistication of this system is not at the level of American lethal drones, but highlights the desires of the DPRK to enter the drone wars. The speed at which these nations are developing programs highlights how U.S. military successes with drones are changing strategic thinking worldwide.




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