Monday, 23 September 2013

The Korean People's Air Force inventorised

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans 

The formation of the Korean People's Army Air Force (KPAF) began shortly after the liberation of Korea from the Japanese in 1945, with the KPAF officially being formed on August 20th, 1947.

The formation was complicated by the fact that most of the airfields were located in South Korea, not in the North. The Soviet Union was keen to help out, and this resulted in the delivery of Po-2s and Yak-18s. Koreans were sent to the Soviet Union and China for training, military aviation schools opened and joint Soviet-Korean units were set up. Activities of these joint units started in 1948 with Li-2s making regular flights to the Soviet Union and China.

Fighter deliveries started shortly after and this resulted in the KPAF being equipped with La-9s, Yak-9s and Il-10s. These planes were the mainstay of the KPAF for the years to come.

After the outbreak of the Korean War, the KPAF mainly provided air support to the army. The most successful raids being flown by Yak-18s and Po-2s. The planes were modified with bomb racks and flew daring raids against the UN forces during the night. The most successful night raid was the destruction of a fuel dump holding nearly 5.5 millions gallons of fuel in the Inchon area in June 1953.[1]

The KPAF was less successful in air to air combat, with the airspace being dominated by UN fighters, most of the KPAF was forced to flee into China. The UN dominance was only changed when the jet powered MiG-15 arrived over the battlefield. The UN reported that a little three hundred KPAF planes were destroyed in the Korean war, it is still unknown how many planes were shot down by the KPAF.

The KPAF remained active even after the signing of the armistice, as it had an important role in flying reconnaissance missions and supplying guerrilla units operating in South Korea. The KPAF was modernized and this resulted in deliveries of more MiG-15s, MiG-17s and Il-28s in the fifties, MiG-19s and MiG-21s in the sixties and seventies and F-6s, F-7s, MiG-23s, MiG-29s and Su-25s in the eighties. The early nineties saw the continues delivery of MiG-29s and the delivery of around thirty MiG-21bis acquired from Kazakhstan in an illegal deal worth eight million US dollars.

The KPAF faces some growing difficulties in operating as an air force.

- The KPAF faces a modern and well equipped enemy while still flying mainly antiques itself. The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) is equipped with modern fighters like the F-16 Block 32/52 and the F-15K. The ROKAF is also in the progress of acquiring F-35 stealth fighters and even producing KF-X stealth fighters on its own. The backbone of the KPAF fighter fleet remains to be the aged MiG-21, which has no chance against the ROKAF's F-16s and F-15'. The more modern MiG-23ML remains in service but in small and slowly dwindling numbers. Out of the sixty delivered, around thirty-two can be found in the open at Pukch'ang. The most modern fighter is the MiG-29. Out of the seventeen acquired, twelve can be found in the open at Sunch'ŏn, used only in small numbers at a time. The most modern fighter bomber is the Su-25, of which thirty-six were reported to have been acquired.[1], yet thirty-seven were found at again, Sunch'ŏn, of which about half seems to be used regularly. Note that both Pukchang and Sunchon have underground facilities in which more aircraft can be stored. Some of the planes are also occasionally dispatched to other airfields, this makes it hard to make a good estimate on the number of operational planes. The more modern aircraft are kept in better condition than the rest, though not used continuously, presumably out of fear for accidents and to spread flying hours across the entire fleet.

- The KPAF is unable to buy new planes to replace the old ones currently in service. Thanks to the arms embargo and countries unwilling to sell planes to North Korea, the KPAF is still flying with planes it received in the fifties. North Korea tried to acquire around thirty JH-7 fighter bombers from China, but this request was turned down by China. North Korea also has the reputation of not always 'paying the right amount of money' for the goods it has received. The KPAF could acquire a limited amount of planes from friendly states like Iran or Cuba. The latter tried to smuggle radars, missiles, two MiG-21s and twelve MiG-21 engines to North Korea onboard on the container ship Chong Chon Gang in July of this year (2013). This attempt to export 'sugar' failed though, with both Cuba and North Korea claiming these items were sent to the DPRK to be upgraded and then returned.

- The KPAF has no direct access to spares thanks to the arms embargo. This already lead to problems in keeping the MiG-23s, MiG-29s and Su-25s operational, with the planes being rotated in order to spread flying hours across the entire fleet. A limited amount of spares could have been acquired from friendly states like Cuba and Iran, although they face the same problem as North Korea: an arms embargo. Such a limited amount would also be very expensive to acquire and wouldn't cover the whole fleet.

- The KPAF fighter fleet has a rapidly growing problem with their missile inventory. The shelf life of most missiles has runned out or is about to run out. The newest (publicly known) missile purchase dates from 1990, with the missiles being delivered in 1991. Fifty R-27R (AA-10) missiles were bought to equip the MiG-29 fleet. Other 'recent' missile purchases are two batches of combined, four hundred fifty R-24s (AA-7) missiles to equip the MiG-23 fleet and one batch of four hundred fifty R-60MKs (AA-8) to equip the MiG-23, MiG-29 and Su-25 fleet. All were delivered in the 1985-1989 timeframe.[2] The KPAF might have found a solution to this problem by acquiring missiles from friendly states, despite the arms embargo in place. Certain missile components could also have been reverse engineered and installed in order to extend the missiles' shelf life.

- The KPAF faces problems with the training of new pilots and keeping the current pilots trained. The training scheme is still based on the old Soviet model, a model which doesn't allow much flexibility within the air force. The KPAF is also hammered by fuel problems and a lack of spare parts. Most of the MiG-29 pilots fly the MiG-21 in order to preserve the lifetime and engines of the MiG-29s. Even though there have been reports of a (quite dramatic) rise in flights in recent years [3] [4], it is still unlikely that the average flying hours per pilot in North Korea are on a par with those in the South.

- An important tactic of the KPAF is to hide the planes in one of the many huge underground facilities (UGF's). It can be questioned if such underground facilities still provide a valid protection to the planes inside, especially with weapons like the GBU-57 around. If penetrating the facility wouldn't work, the ROKAF and the USAF could always opt to simply destroy the doors and roads leading towards the facility, locking the planes in their own base.

- Most of the KPAF senior positions are being held by people selected for political reasons, not for being actually qualified for the job. This can lead to a huge problem in a war, with the KPAF leadership not having a clue what do do.

But as an air force commander you have to think in solutions, not in problems.

- The KPAF has a huge fleet of 'stealthy' An-2s/Y-5s which can be used to transport units far into South Korea. Thanks to the plane having a slow speed and the ability to fly at a very low altitude it is hard to see on the radar. The ability to land at short strips makes this plane perfect for her task. Other unconventional means of infiltrating South Korean airspace undetected include the use of gliders and hot air balloons.

- The KPAF should avoid contact with South Korean fighters or South Korean air defence systems and instead focus on hit and run tactics.

- North Korea makes use of its long, mostly empty highways and many dirt landing strips it built to which the KPAF could divert its aircraft should the need arise.

- North Korean airfields as a rule have large amounts of dummy aircraft near or on them, a tactic which besides fooling the occasional satellite observer proved extremely effective during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

- North Korea has large amounts of ballistic missiles at its disposal which it could use to destroy South Korean airbases in a first strike manner, thereby dimishing the threat of modern South Korean aircraft.

- It has been reported [5] that the DPRK developed a rudimentary AEW capability by mounting a MiG-29s No-19E radar to at least one An-24 plane.

Fighter jets


Fighter bombers



Jet and conversion trainers


Basic trainers


Transport planes

  • Soviet Union An-2/Y-5 Two configurations: (2)
  • Soviet Union An-24RV (Operated by Air Koryo but in wartime likely under KPAF command)
  • Soviet Union Il-18 (Operated by Air Koryo but in wartime likely under KPAF command)
  • Soviet Union Il-76MD two configurations: (2) (Operated by Air Koryo but in wartime under KPAF command)
  • Soviet Union Li-2 (Likely to already have been decommissioned, may have been used as a bomber)


VIP planes (Operated by Air Koryo)

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)



    KPAF Airbases (Map via Scramble)

    This post was written in cooperation with Joost. For more information on the KPA, visit

    (This blog uses as much photos as there are available from the planes in North Korean service)

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