The North Korean Air Force by Google Earth
North Korea’s airfields are some of the most interesting places to spy on, and often, some of the easiest to spot. Generally, you can see a large airfield from about 10 miles up, with or without high resolution coverage.
Here’s an overview of the North Korean military airfields that can be seen on Google Earth. There is almost no civil aviation at all, and nearly all of that is at one place–Pyongyang-Sunan Airport, which is a dual-use field. (Click the images to expand them to full size.)
MiG-17s and 19s are two of the three most common fighter aircraft on North Korean airfields. The 17s have the stubby wings with the rounded ends; the 19s are more sharply swept and angular.
The other common type is the MiG-21, with its distinctive delta-shaped wing. Kim Jong Il purchased 40 of these from Kazakhstan at the height of the Great Famine, when people were wandering in from the countryside and dying in heaps in front of train stations. Some of the MiG-21s pictured here may be Chinese-made F-7s, which have slight extensions on their wingtips.
Frequently, the MiG-21s you see don’t appear to be in working order. Some are clearly stripped of parts, decaying, or even sitting in ponds of standing water. Many appear to be mere decoys.
The planes on the left are MiG-17s. Those on the right are MiG-21s.
These swing-wing fighters at Kaechon Air Base are probably MiG-23s. Global Security doesn’t list North Korea as having the only other aircraft this could be, the MiG-27, which is based on the same airframe, and which is indistinguishable from the MiG-23 with this resolution. The 23 is a fighter; the 27 is a ground-attack aircraft, and more advanced.
There are thirty of these blurry things, and if you can identify them, you know something I don’t. The don’t look like any of the older MiG or Sukhoi models. The image quality isn’t good enough to even make a firm guess.
Global Security identifies this location as the Headquarters of the 1st Air Combat Command, Kaechon AB.
You can see many more MiG 17s, 19s, and 21s here, at Wonsan AB, right next to what I believe is one of Kim Jong Il’s palaces.
I found large bombers in one location, at Uiju airfield, near Sinuiju. These ancient leviathans are Il-28 “Beagles,” first flown by the Soviets in 1948. The Chinese built their own version of the Beagle under license as the H-5. You can still see a number of these on Chinese airfields.
Global Security claims that North Korea has 80 Il-28s. You can see more than 40 on this airfield. The others could be underground, or there could be another airfield, such as the Taetan airfield to which Global Security refers in its summary.
Note that half of the airfield was imaged during summer and half during the winter (thus, we could be counting some planes twice, and some not at all). In the second image, you can see a camouflage net at the end of the taxiway, covering the entrance to what may be an underground hangar.
In this winter image, the Beagles’ Klimov VK-1 turbojet engines have blown and melted the snow right off the ground.
For a nearly roadless country that faces the potential for rural unrest, North Korea has surprisingly few helicopters. This is a group of about a dozen Mil-8 utility helicopters and a few Mil-4 observation helicopters.
NK Econ Watch points out this helipad in the middle of Pyongyang, 2 miles East by Southeast of the May Day Stadium, on the North bank of the Taedong River. There are six Mil-8 Hips sitting on the tarmac.
These four very large craft that appear to be Mil-26s. The Mil-26 is the largest and most powerful helicopter in the world, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
Interestingly, when this post was published, Global Security did not list North Korea as having any of these — or any other large helicopter — in its inventory.
The North Korean regime concentrates its most loyal subjects in Pyongyang and generally disfavors its rural citizens. For transportation, North Korea relies heavily on its railroads, most of which are electrified and thus dependent on a supply of electricity that cannot meet current demands. If a rural insurgency to break out in North Korea, the government will face severe logistical challenges with its poor road network, the vulnerability of its railways and electricity grid, and a small force of helicopters. North Korea’s large but heavily mechanized army would have difficulty reaching insurgents based in remote areas.
Here are some of the An-2 “Colt” biplanes that North Korea uses for both civilian and military purposes. Reportedly, some of these biplanes were built in North Korea under license. Don’t underestimate them because they’re biplanes. Though old and slow, they have an amazing amount of lift and can take off and land on very small unimproved runways. With their wood and fabric structure, they’re also very difficult to detect on radar. In the event of war, North Korea would use them to deploy special forces and paratroopers for deep penetration missions. These are at a small airstrip and could be for civilian use.
These An-2s appear to be for military use, judging by the revetments in which they’re parked.
This aircraft will look familiar to World War II vets, airplane enthusiasts, and drug smugglers everywhere. Clearly, this is a DC-3, a/k/a C-47, right?
Close. On further research, I learned that the Soviets built a copy of the DC-3 under license as the Lisunov Li-2. That appears to be what we have here.
The North Koreans are second to none at tunneling. At some of North Korea’s front-line airfields, you can’t see any aircraft, but you can see the entrances to underground shelters where aircraft can be stored.
The North Koreans have gone to even greater expense than this to conceal and protect their air force. In a scene that seems to have been lifted from a James Bond film, North Korea has just almost completed an underground runway, built right through a mountain:
More recent imagery of this location, known as Kang Da Ri Air Base, here. That imagery suggests that the underground runway is probably a secondary runway and shelter entrance. The main runway is to the north of the mountain.
North Korea keeps its most modern aircraft at Sunchon Air Base.
One of these is the Su-25 ground attack aircraft, which was first used in combat by the Soviet Air Force in Afghanistan. North Korea has about 30 of them, according to Global Security. If so, this appears to be most of them.
Sunchon is also the home base of North Korea’s compliment of MiG-29s. On October 14, 2010, the North Korean ground crews rolled their wares out of their underground hangars. It was a bright, clear day, giving us an excellent view when a passing satellite snapped these pictures of the aircraft lined up just outside the shelter entrances, like snakes sunning themselves on a rock.
These two examples, parked on the edge of the runway, give us a better look.
If the Soviets first deployed the Su-25 in the mid-1980s, you would think that the North Koreans wouldn’t have gotten them until the mid-1990s. That happens to correspond to the beginning of North Korea’s Great Famine, which killed approximately 2 million people, most of them between 1994 and 1998. North Korea’s agricultural production and food supply have never recovered, and it remains dependent on the aid of the same neighbors it threatens. It has received approximately $200 million in international food aid from the U.N. World Food Program alone each year ever since (until it kicked out most of the World Food Program staff at the end of 2005). Assuming a unit cost of $12 million per aircraft and accessories, you’re looking at approximately $216 million worth of Russian airplanes. That’s enough to feed all of the 6.5 million North Koreans included in a typical year’s World Food Program appeal for a year, with enough left over to throw in some extra sugar rations.
In addition, this source estimates that an export version of a MiG-29 costs $35 million up front, and about $5 million a year to maintain. North Korea purchased its first 12 MiG-29s from Belarus in 1995, as the worst part of the Great Famine began. At approximately $420 million, that’s enough to have fed every hungry North Korean man, woman, and child for two years. The following year, Kim Jong Il purchased another 18 MiG-29SEs from Belarus and three new MiG-29s from Russia. It’s doubtful that any aircraft in human history has killed more people, and these planes have probably never seen combat.
~ ~ ~
Update: According to this source, North Korea purchased its MiG-29s in the late 1980s.