Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The KPAF investigated: North Korea's MiG-29s

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans 

The Korean People's Air Force (KPAF) is often regarded as being no match to more advanced nations due to their outdated and usually obsolete equipment. This post discusses one of the exceptions to this belief: North Korea's MiG-29s.

The 55th Kumsong Guard Air Regiment operates fifteen MiG-29s based out of Sunch'ŏn, near Pyongyang. The MiG-29s, like most of the KPAF planes, operate on a rotation basis. Out of these fifteen planes, at least five are operational at any given time. The others seem to be either in a semi-operational status or stored while awaiting overhaul.

Although reports about the number of MiG-29s North Korea acquired range anything from thirty to forty-five, only a total of seventeen MiG-29s were acquired since 1988. The first deal was struck with the Soviet Union in 1987 and comprised thirteen MiG-29 9.12B Fulcrum-As and one MiG-29UB 9.51 Fulcrum-B. Delivery of the MiG-29s started in 1988, lasting until 1992 with the arrival of the last MiG-29.

The second deal comprised the delivery of MiG-29S-13 9.13 Fulcrum-Cs in semi knock-down kits (SKDs). Reportedly, the intention was to build ten fighters which were to be put together at the Seventh Machine Industry Bureau in Panghyon.[1] This facility was set up in an effort to create a local aircraft industry and to ease the flow of MiG spare parts, which are also manufactured here.

Progress on the MiG-29S-13s was slow and the plan proved too ambitious for North Korea. The process was further complicated by the unwillingness of the Russians to get paid in goods, rather than in hard currency. That's why, in 1992, Russia stopped with transferring MiG-29S-13 components.[2] After completing around three MiG-29s, it was decided to abandon the program in 1993. The plans for a forty aircraft strong MiG-29 fleet had to be given up.

The three MiG-29S-13 9.13s received a serial connected to a special event in North Korean history like the MiG-29S-13 9.13 below, serialed 415, a reference to Kim Il-sung's birthday; The 15th of April 1912. Another MiG-29S-13 9.13 was serialed 820, which referred to the birth of the KPAF; The 20th of August 1948. These two MiGs made a flypast honouring Kim Il-Sung on his birthday in 1993.

Out of the seventeen MiG-29s acquired and assembled, at least one MiG-29 crashed. Another MiG-29 appears to be on display at the Korean People's Army Exhibition of Arms and Equipment. The KPAF also transferred one N019ME radar from an unfinished MiG-29S-13 to an An-24 in a bid to create a rudimentary AEW capability.[3]

The remaining unassembled MiG-29s in the form of SKDs have likely been cannibalised for spare parts in order to maintain the rest of the fleet. After the fall of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin's state visit to the Republic of Korea, further delivery of aircraft and spare parts came to a stop (barring deliveries under existing contracts) and the DPRK was forced to turn to other sources. While most of its attempts appear to have been fruitless, at least one deal for spare parts was reached in 1999 with Russia. Subsequent requests during the early 2000s have led to a somewhat more open stance on Russia's side, which combined with spare parts from other sources have led to the KPAF being capable of maintaining its MiG-29 fleet relatively well.

Kim Jong-un taking a look at the MiG-29 simulator at Sunch'ŏn.

MiG-29s, Su-25s and J-5s stored at Sunch'ŏn.
 Note the white cloths are hiding the true colours of the plane.
This is done to protect the planes from weather elements.

Apart from the MiG-29s, Su-25s and the seemingly inactive MiG-21s, Sunch'ŏn is also home to a few J-5s. One may wonder what such dated aircraft are doing next to the KPAF's most valuable air assets. It appears J-5s are merely being used to keep the MiG-29 pilots current on jet aircraft. Apart from the obvious cost saving reason, it also relieves the MiG-29s of this task and spares the precious airframes.

First plaquette: Kim Il-sung inspected this plane on the 17th of August 1988. Second plaquette: Kim Jong-Il also inspected this plane on the 17th of August 1988 and on the 27th of December 2008.
Note: This is the same plane as seen on the front cover. (Serial: 553)

At least two MiG-29s are constantly kept on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA). Opposed to other air forces, QRA duties will always be performed by four aircraft from two different units, minimizing the chance of defections.

Although not permanent, other bases like Onchon and Kwail have also seen MiG-29 detachments. 

It is known KPAF MiG-29s have been involved in multiple incidents during a thaw in relations in Februari and March 2003. On the 20th of February a single MiG-19 reportedly crossed the Northern Limit Line for unknown reasons, withdrawing again after two ROKAF F-5Es were deployed to the area. This event triggered what seems to have been a planned provocation in the form of an interception of a USAF RC-135S and a JMSDF EP-3, both on the 2nd of March 2003. In the case of the USAF RC-135S, two MiG-29s with the characteristic "hunchback" and two MiG-23MLs were deployed, providing us with the first footage of KPAF Fulcrum-Cs.

One of the two MiG-29S-13s photographed by the RC-135S. Note the loadout of four R-60MKs and three droptanks.

Similarly, the JMSDF EP-3 was approached by at least two MiG-29s, briefly locking their radars
onto the reconnaissance aircraft.

Low flight profile intercept mission, one droptank (9.12 and 9.13) (Blue)
High flight profile intercept mission, one droptank (9.12 and 9.13) (Purple)
High flight profile intercept mission, three droptanks (9.13 only) (Red)

The KPAF acquired fairly standard air-to-air armament for the MiG-29s, namely, R-27R semi-active radar homing and R-60MK IR-homing missiles. Although R-73s and R-77s are often seen used on MiG-29s, North Korea likely received neither. For ground attack duties, they can also be armed with dumb bombs and B-8 rocket pods. KPAF MiG-29 pilots are solely trained for air-to-air combat and will be generally unable to perform ground attack duties. Unsurprisingly, footage of North Korean MiG-29s armed with air-to-ground weaponry is extremely rare.

Seven MiG-29s visible at Sunch'ŏn
 The two MiG-29s in front of the HAS are on QRA duty.

Although the KPAF's MiG-29S-13 9.13 Fulcrum-Cs are of export standard, and thus significantly downgraded, they did come with the Gardeniya jammer. It is known that the KPAF tested this system on multiple occasions. The MiG-29S-13 9.13 Fulcrum-Cs do lack the 'Parol' identification, friend or foe (IFF) system, which were not installed for planes destined for non-Warsaw Pact members.

KPAF pilots running towards their aircraft. This MiG-29 is armed with the standard loadout of one R-27R
and two R-60MKs on each side.

The MiG-29s are seen in most of the joint Korean People's Air Force and Korean People's Army exercises. The value of such exercises for the MiG-29s can be disputed, as the MiG-29s are usually just performing aerobatic maneuvers in an effort to impress Kim Jong-un and the Korean People's Army leadership.

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For more information on the KPA, visit

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