North Korean Fighter Pilot Dies in Possible Defection Attempt

A fighter plane from North Korea has crashed in China, killing its pilot. The pilot may have been trying to flee North Korea. Yonhap has a photograph of the aircraft, which has a delta wing characteristic of a Soviet MiG-21 or an early-model ChiCom F-7.

north-korean-mig-crash.jpg

[Yonhap photo]

China may seem an unlikely destination for a defector who must have known that he’d be repatriated and killed if caught, but Yonhap, quoting South Korean government sources, claims that the pilot was actually headed for Russia — also an unlikely destination — and lost his way. Why not South Korea or Japan? Because the North Korean air force undoubtedly keeps a very tight hold on the supply of fuel to discourage pilots from entertaining such ideas, and witness accounts published by the AP are consistent with this theory:

A witness said the plane plowed into an apple orchard, killing its pilot on impact. South Korean media said the plane, believed to be a fighter jet, appeared to have run out of fuel and might have been piloted by a defector.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the aircraft crashed Tuesday afternoon in Lagu, a village in Liaoning province about 150 kilometers (90 miles) from the North Korean border. It cited government officials as saying the plane “might be” North Korean, and said the pilot died.

The report said China was communicating with North Korea about the matter.

A man who lives in Ersonggou village, about five kilometers (three miles) from the crash site, said he and many other local residents saw the plane flying low over the area before it crashed into an apple orchard.

“The engine was making a very strange noise and it was flying in a very weird way, with it’s head up and rear down,” said the man, who would give only his surname, Ning. “It looked like a piece of scrap iron flying in the sky.”

CNN adds that the plane destroyed a house, but didn’t hurt anyone on the ground.

As of this morning, AFP was still reporting that the aircraft was a helicopter.

You can see satellite images of most of North Korea’s military airfields here. Press reports have mentioned a North Korea airfield at Sinuiju as a likely place of origin, but I’ve never seen anything but Il-28 bombers on that field. The air base at Kaechon seems a more likely source. Speculate on your own what this says about morale in the North Korean military.

Update: Yonhap reports that South Korean radar saw the plane taking off from Sinuiju after all.

21 comments

  1. FormerNavyPilot says:

    Airframe looks largely intact – therefore it didn’t auger in, but apparently made at least a semi-controlled belly landing. Also, doesn’t look like there was a fire, which is consistent with running out of fuel. The witness description of it flying around with “…it’s head up and rear down” sounds like the pilot was at low airspeed (high angle of attack) possibly looking for a place to set down. Definitely a Mig-21 type, or the Chinese Shenyang knockoff of same.

    I’d really, really like to know how many flying hours the Nork pilots were getting each month, these days.

  2. a listener says:

    What gets to me is that if it in fact turns out to be true that this was a fighter pilot attempting to defect from the DPRK it shows that faith in regime is in a stage never before seen. North Korean pilots are not chosen from the wavering or hostile class.

  3. a listener says:

    Although pilot defection attempts have occured before, once in 1983 and the other in 1996. Still it is extremely rare.

  4. gwern says:

    > Why not South Korea or Japan? Because the North Korean air force undoubtedly keeps a very tight hold on the supply of fuel to discourage pilots from entertaining such ideas, and witness accounts published by the AP are consistent with this theory:

    Huh? Because Russia is now closer to North Korea than South Korea?

    [North Korea is counting on Russia not to harbor defectors, and the pilots must at least doubt that they'd be safe there. - Joshua]

  5. Alec says:

    Gwern, I assume the take-off was in the north of the country; and a route to South Korea would have required a strike-out over the sea before returning, lest he be shot out of the sky over the DMZ.

  6. Ditto81 says:

    Maybe the Norks are closer to Mars than myself when it comes toterms of their “Terms of Inderance”…

  7. Ditto81 says:

    Either way, I agree with the assestment that the pilot lost fuel while heading for Sanctuary.

    As any elite born North Korean knows; the walls outside the city of Willows/Pyongyang are poisoned.

    Thank God that in the Den of Frogs, the tadpoles now question the system.

  8. Reading/reporting from Shenyang/Dandong today:

    It’s a MIG 21, according to Chinese news pages;

    There are some interesting snapshots and Google Earth maps here on a Chinese BBS along with a litany of random but interesting opinions: (“Maybe this was the North Korean Lin Biao” and “Is this being done to gin up public opinion during the US-ROK military drills” and “Shouldn’t this militarily sensitive information remain offline?” and “I still believe in the power of our country [e.g., China's] air defenses”);

    Local websites and provincial reporters aren’t able to cover the story (Liaoning Daily’s website headline is “Wang Zhen Calls for a Harmonious Online Environment,” for instance) and remain on the drumbeat protesting US-South Korean military drills (long interviews with specialists about American “naval encirclement” of China), but the national agencies seem to be covering the story if not asking all the questions;

    Locals in Liaoning (taxi drivers, man on the street, etc.) are a bit aghast that the plane got that far (about 140 km into China) without being intercepted/shot down, which is why I suppose Chinese reports are staying ambiguous among other reasons. The North Koreans I ran into this morning in Shenyang didn’t know anything about it.

  9. David Woolley says:

    Since one normally does not defect to China, one might assume this was not a defection.

    If so, what does it tell us? It is unlikely that a military fighter would take off with nearly empty tanks, so probably the fuel or the fuel supply pump was defective. (Empty tanks filled with a fuel air mixture are explosive, so I don’t think that the condition of the fuel reserves can be deduced from the lack of fire.) So a lower than desirable state of operational maintenance for even a front line fighter.

    This is an old fighter, Mig21, Fishbed — so the NorK airforce is likely to be as puny as we believe. It has an extremely short range, so that it is quite possible that it crashed while trying to land at a scheduled air base. If so, then it was welcome in China, not surreptitiously flying through.

    The Press feast, with photographs (!), suggests that the Chinese Airforce was caught short in bad news control. Why? It could’ve been a defection — or it could be that the Northern air generals have been conducting sub rosa operational exercises with their brothers in the DPRK without the official permission of Beijing. Sort of a secret “in your face” to the US/ROK exercises.

    I think it is likely that the political/economic powers in China desire closer and peaceful relations with us — while the military and old Communists remember the Korean war as a Golden Age, and resent our power in Asia. The generals actively support the NorK generals, while the politicians are embarrassed and resentful of their miscreant neighbor. And in this split between the governing military and civilian powers in China, there is opportunity. I think that’s what the Fishbed incident suggests.

  10. camphortree says:

    The bushes do not look like apple trees.
    More like a corn field that borders with a tomato or okra farm.

  11. Federale says:

    I am not convinced he was trying to defect. Most North Koreans know that China returns defectors, and, I would think, all high level defectors. A real defector would have tried for the South, even with limited fuel. And I am thinking that given how small North Korea is, he would have had enough fuel to make it to the south and eject, or even land. Remember any plane with little fuel is useless as a combat aircraft, I am thinking that he had enough fuel to cross the 38th parallel and at least eject.

  12. Matt says:

    Quick question for anyone in the know. If the pilot was trying to defect, why didn’t he eject when he lost power? I know the MiG’s seat isn’t too good for low altitude escapes, but still I would figure a defector would bail out of a crippled plane. I seem to remember a story about the KPA disabling the seats to prevent defection during a DPRK-ROK war. I always thought it was a rumor.

  13. FormerNavyPilot says:

    Excellent question, Matt, but all I can do is speculate. Not impossible that they would disable the seat. Wouldn’t be the most crazy thing of all the crazy things they do. I certainly have no knowledge that they did in fact did this.

    Soviet ejections seats for their later planes (MiG 29, SU-27) are actually some of the best. You may have seen video of airshow incidents from several years back where pilots ejected from crashing planes (some of them inverted!) just instants before impact, and made it. I remember thinking that the seats in the planes I flew (S-3 Viking) sure wouldn’t have allowed you to survive with those parameters of altitude, attitude, and velocity. I’ve been out of the game 20 years, though, and western seats have improved, if I’m not mistaken in response to the Soviet seats’ evident superiority. There was a recent crash of a Canadian F-18 at an airshow in a very similar scenario: low speed, low-altitude, pitching down and rolling past 90 degrees as the seat fired, and he made it. Ejection seats give you anywhere from 12 to 30 g’s acceleration, so broken legs or arms, messed up ligaments, spinal injuries are not at all uncommon. Not something you want to just try for fun. Maybe fear of injury was a factor in this particular Nork pilot’s decision. We’ll probably never know.

    I wonder what China’s rules of engagement have been regarding intruding NK aircraft? Wonder if they’ve changed after this incident? I DON’T wonder about the “education” sessions the remaining pilots will be going through right about now…

  14. Ditto81 says:

    DPRK elite pilots trying to reach Russia for Sanctuary get lost and crash David. This may very well be the first case of “Escape from Pyongyang”…

    I also agree that only the elite have permission to fly. General Taek must be very worried by now.

  15. Ditto81 says:

    September will reveal.

  16. Sonagi says:

    The bushes do not look like apple trees.
    More like a corn field that borders with a tomato or okra farm.

    The foliage in the background appears to be more than twice as tall as the people in the photo. As a native midwesterner, I assure you that cornstalks don’t grow nearly that tall. The trees look lean probably because of being mowed over by the plane. Piled on the wreckage are trunks and branches probably felled by the wings.

  17. Glans says:

    “As a native midwesterner, I assure you that cornstalks don’t grow nearly that tall.” As a native of Earth, I assure you, those ain’t no apple trees. And the logs on the airplane look like they were cut with a saw.

  18. FormerNavyPilot says:

    “…the logs on the airplane look like they were cut with a saw…”

    Well, the CNN addition to the story mentioned the plane plowing into a house. Looks like a pile of fragmented bricks on the port wing, so I assumed the sawed off looking poles were part of a shed or other such construction.

  19. kushibo says:

    Sonagi wrote:

    As a native midwesterner, I assure you that cornstalks don’t grow nearly that tall.

    I have it on good authority that in Oklahoma the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.

  20. Theresa says:

    I have it on good authority that in Oklahoma the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.

    oh, that is BAD!

    “and it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky…”

  21. kushibo says:

    Theresa wrote:

    oh, that is BAD!

    What? It’s not true?!

    He lied to us through song. I hate when people do that!

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