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)

    Recommended Articles

    North Korea's forgotten aircraft: The Yak-18/CJ-5 
    The KPAF investigated: North Korea's MiG-29s
    North Korea and her fighting vehicles


    1. I was really surprised to see the addition of the Kamov-32 in the fleet. They've never said to have been operated by north korea before (while they're instead used by SOUTH korea). You've more elements about them? Especially about details of the origin: if they come from some african or middle-east country or could have been imported as civilian-needed helicopters.

      1. The Ka-32's are likely operated by Air Koryo and used for (VIP) transport in the East. They normally operate out of Inhung, and were probably acquired from Russia at the beginning of the century in a civilian role (so it can be assumed they are Ka-32A). While the MD 500Es are indeed likely to be used for confusion tactics given the fact South Korea also operates them, this doesn't seem probable for the Ka-32 as only two have been spotted so far.

      2. Ok, i was thinking that could have been an interesting use for cover operations in time of peace. Especially considering that the SouthKorean use Ka-32 also in the Guard Forests: a Ka-32 flying with such marks and cameo close the DMZ (if has been well-inserted to avoid initial radar detection) could means that the south korean force by visual check could seriously guess it's a civilian unit: the shelling in 2010 proved that south korean forces still needs improvement in communications and there could be some time before the ROKAF realize it's not one of their forest guard helo.
        BTW, i guess we can wait and see what will be shown us in the parades of this year: honestly i hope they could reveal some new imported drones from Iran. It's someway puzzling that they've not attempted to import two of the serious lacks of the KPA now: drones and anti-ships missiles (apart air force of course, but this is more difficult).

      3. The Ka-32's task is to ferry goods around for Kim Jong-Un. It's as simple as that. I don't think the KPAF ever had the idea to use them like you said.

        The KPN received new anti-ship missiles for their corvettes. Likely to have been acquired from Iran along with the Fajr-27's.

        Drones aren't exactly the KPA's largest gap in capabilities, newer drones like the Mojaher or Yasir would still be welcome addition though. Only time will tell!

      4. Ok...

        About the drones, could be useful for them because they're potentially less easy to locate and destroy on the ground (being smaller) and could be launched more easily from unconventional ground (fields, headlands...). Without considering the fact that if they could have a small fleet of iranian-made drones for strikes, they could spare fuel and human pilots that should have been expended on the MiG-17/19 used in attack missions (and that also, having a larger signature and size, could also be more vulnerable).

        May i ask you a preview of your opinion or informations about anti-ships missiles? I had read only rumours on internet but without actual proof. I've noticed that of the three new corvettes visible, the most complete (the one displaying also the "H" letter on the helicopter deck in Nampo) seems to have 3 - 4 "boxes" on the bow, Do you think they're boxes launchers for missiles?

        Also you've some hypotesis of the origin of the ships? (if korean-built or some heavy re-building of imported hulls).

      5. While drones are indeed as you're saying a valuable asset to the KPA, it should be noted that (especially considering the existant drone programme) it is hardly their largest deficiency. Another lack in capabilities comes in the form of modern close range mobile air defence systems, which should be of great value to an invading force (that is if their intention is still to reunite the North and the South).

        As was previously mentioned we'd rather not spoil too much navy-related information. The "missile boxes" do appear to be AShMs of a new type though, yes.

    2. Hello, i guess you've all took notice about the two different kind of indigenous drones that has been recovered by SouthKorea:
      It's interesting they've a different design, also it's interesting how APPEARS that the SouthKorean air defence has not intercepted/attempted to shot them down (differently from what Israel did with Hezbollah drones).

    3. Hello: it appears that the international press noticed the new North Korean corvettes (calling them "frigates" seems a bit excessive). However they all state that they've RBU launchers on forward position. And it's still a bit curious that they speak everywhere of 2 units, while there is a third clear units in Nampo dock-yard on way to be launched.

      Another thing:
      One of the photo of the recent North Korean air force competition show a white helicopter on background, a commentor in the forum asked if could be a Mi-34

      1. Sorry for the late reply, it seems we missed it! We have some information on them, could you email us instead of discussing it here?


    4. As a warbird pilot & enthusiast, I'd love to have more photos of any KPAF Nanchang CJ-6A aircraft in service... any ideas where to look? Thanks---

      1. Sorry for the late reply! Your comment seems to have slipped past our attention. Modern images of the CJ-6A in North Korean service are extremely rare. However, we can dig up the video of the aircraft in the picture in flight and perhaps even some (post) Korean War pictures/footage if you're still interested?

    5. Do you have an estimate as to how many MiG-17/J-5 and MiG-19/J-6 are active with the KPAF? I see a MiG-15 pictured, do they still operate this aircraft, or is it possible it is a decoy piece, similar to how older Iraqi Aircraft were parked on airfields to shield newer, more valuable aircraft?

      1. The MiG-15 in the image is likely still in use. It's located in one of North Korea's most northern airfields, which also houses another couple of dozen of the aircraft that still appear to be used (sporadically). Generally the rule is the further away from Pyongyang and the DMZ you look the more derelict the aircraft are. Most airfields however usually operate MiG-19s or MiG-21s in combination with a couple of MiG-17s for training purposes. I've always meant to accurately map the number of aircraft on each airfield and properly estimate the total still active, and this is definitely something that will feature in our upcoming book, but as of yet it's unfortunately not finished.
        Aside from special hardened shelters and shelters tunneled into closeby mountains, airbases harbouring North Korea's most valuable aircraft have roughly the same layout and amount of decoy aircraft placed around them as others, which is a lot.

    6. As none were acquired by the KPAF, no. The acquistion of Mi-24s was a mistake by the U.S. DoD. Although later corrected, the whole world assumed Mi-24s were indeed acquired.

      1. Could you Inform me that reference? I have very big interest to military of North Korea

      I used translator
      You can look glass cockpitted MiG-21(this cockpit is flightsim).
      The cockpit is different from the cockpit of the LANCER and 21-98.
      from japan.

    8. This Mig-21 is PFM?

    9. Interesting news about local production (or partial production?) of An-2 and Cessna-172

    10. A nice Il-28/H-5 picture:

    11. The US has 59 air-force bases in the different state. These air-force bases are used as the shelter, training ground, and command center. If you want to know more about the US air-force bases then you can visit our site.