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.

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[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.