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Portfolio: Democratic People's Republic of Korea Air Force
By Text by Tom Cooper; photographs via Jin Ho
Sep 1, 2003, 18:46

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The DPRKAF is a relatively huge air force, boasting 110.000 active and 40.000 reserve personnel, deployed on 25 operational airfields, 26 dispersal airfields and 18 highway strips (some up to 40km long), equipped with largely obsolete aircraft, but run and flown by highly aggressive personnel – as illustrated by its behavior during the current stand-off on the Korean Peninsula.

It remains unclear if the DPRKAF is still flying the original MiG-21F-13s, delivered in the mid-1960s, or early J-7Is, supplied by China. One of other type is seen here.

The DPRKAF operates 29 MiG-29s, 35 MiG-23MLs, 120 MiG-21F-13/PFMs and MiG-21bis, 40 J-6s, 100 MiG-15s, and 100 J-5s in intercept units. Operational Conversional units are also equipped with 5 MiG-29UBs, 10 MiG-23UBs, 20 MiG-21Us, 30 MiG-15UTI (a large part of which is also used by the Air Force Academy), and 25 FT-5s. Offensive units are equipped with 36 Su-25K/UBKs, 20 Su-7BMKs, an unknown number of A-5s, and 85 H-5 bombers.

This photograph is in so far interesting, as it possibly shows a formation of DPRKAF A-5Cs. No photographs of these aircraft are known in the public.

A trio of Il-28s in flight. The DPRKAF is the last air force keeping 85 of these bombers in service.

Aside from MiG-15UTI, the DPRKAF also has 12 L-39Cs and over 100 Yak-18/CJ-6 for training. The transport component flies 4 Il-62Ms, 4 Tu-154Bs, 3 Tu-76MDs, 10 An-23s, and 2 Il-18Ds, as well as over 300 An-2/Y-5s, deployed in two large air divisions, which cooperate tightly with units of special forces.
There are also combat and transport helicopter units in unknown quantity, flying a total of 50 Mi-25s, 10 Mi-14PLs, 48 Mi-4/Z-5s, 20 Mi-8s, some Mi-17s, possibly few Mi-26s, 86 MD-500C/D/Es, and up to 140 Mi-2s.

On the ground, the DPRKAF also controls a tightly connected C4 system, deployed in four air defense sectors – each having a single Air Combat Division – with a total of over 60 early warning and ground control intercept radar sites, 60 regular and 70 alternate SAM-sites, 270 SA-2 launchers, 32 SA-3 launchers, and 36 SA-5 launchers, as well as a large number of ZPU-23s and 57mm radar-controlled AAA.

Battery of DORKAF ZPU-4s on exercise.

The DPRKAF operates also a large number of radar-controlled 57mms, which proved deadly against US aircraft in SEA, 30 years ago. Their feasibility in modern warfare is unclear. Note the radar-van in the foreground.

North Korean SA-2s on parade; each Air Combat Division has several regiments with up to six battalions of SA-2s.

The DPRKAF also controls all the 32 SA-3 launchers in North Korean arsenal. This is a transport truck seen during a parade in P'yongyang.

The HQ of the DPRKAF is in P’yongyang, and it controls several directly reporting units, including an EW Sqn (equipped with H-5Rs, few An-2s, and An-24s), a test- and evaluation squadron (equipped with one or two examples from each type of combat aircraft in service), a naval-support and ASW unit (equipped with Mi-14PLs and few other helicopters). North Korean pilots are trained on the Kim Ch’aek Air Force Academy, in Chongjin, and the officers on the K’yongsong Flight Officers School, in P’yongyang.

Above and bellow: Pilot of the DPRKAF MiG-21PF: how well trained is he? Western reports indicate the DPRKAF having considerable problems with maintenance and fuel shortages; the North Korean propaganda machinery idolizes such cases like that of the pilot Gil Young-Jo, which in 1993 supposedly rather died in his malfunctioning MiG than to crash into a statue of the "Great Leader", Kim Il-Sung (YPN TV, via Jin)

On the tactical level the DPRKAF is organized into divisions, each of which includes flying units organized in regiments of three squadrons (with at least one squadron for operational conversion), regiments of air-defense units, a radar regiment, communications regiment, as well as a battalion each of engineers, guards, and NBC-trained troops. Also, each air base has its own support units.

The main combat units of the DPRKAF are:

1st Air Combat Division, HQ at Kaechon AB, Pyongan-namdo Province, including:
- 24th AR, based at Uiju AB, with three squadrons of H-5 bombers,
- 35th AR, based at Kaechon AB, with three squadrons of MiG-19/J-6s,
- 57th AR, based at Onchon AB, with three squadrons of MiG-19/J-6s,
- 55th AR, based at Sunchon AB, with one squadron of MiG-29s, and two of Su-25s,
- 60th AR, based at Pukchang AB, with three squadrons of MiG-23MLs,
- ? AR, based at Panghyon AB, with three squadrons of MiG-17F/J-5s,
- 5 SAM Brigades, deployed between Kaechon, Sohung, Unchong, and P’yongyang, equipped with SA-2s and SA-5s.

MiG-21PFM is the most-widespread version in DPRKAF service. Large numbers are in use by at least two regiments, each with three squadrons. The example "515" can be seen here.

Gaggle of MiG-23MLs in full DPRKAF markings; the type is now in service with three operational interceptor squadrons and an OCU of the 60th Air Regiment, based at Pukchang AB.

DPRKAF MiG-23ML seen shortly after a take-off. Despite reports about the poor condition of the North Korean Air Force, its interceptors are still very active and regularly intercepting US ELINT/SIGINT recce aircraft operating along North Korean coasts.

Four DPRKAF MiG-29s seen during a display. One squadron operating 29 examples in now operational with the 55th Air Regiment, based at Sunchon AB. Interestingly, the two other squadrons of the same unit fly Su-25Ks.

The crew of an USN P-3 Orion, off the northern coast of North Korea, took the so far best photographs of what appears to be a DPRKAF MiG-29Cs, in spring of 2003. (US DoD)

Another still from a video showing the DPRKAF MiG-29C armed with R-60 missiles approaching to an USN P-3: DPRKAF should have only a handful of these fighters, and appears not to have a second regiment equipped with "Fulcrum". (US DoD)

2nd Air Combat Division, HQ at Toksan/Hamhung, Hamgyong-namdo Province, including:
- ? AR, based at Wonsan AB, with three squadrons of MiG-19/J-6s,
- ? AR, based at Toksan AB, with three squadrons of MiG-21PF/J-7s,
- ? AR, based at Hwangsuwon-ni, with three squadrons of MIG-19/J-6s,
- 3 SAM-Brigades, deployed mainly around Wonsan, equipped with SA-2s.

An interesting photograph of what might be one of some 30 MiG-21bis clandestinely acquired from Kazakhstan, in 1999.

Two DPRKAF MiG-21bis in flight. It remains unknown if they are in service with the 2nd or 3rd Air Combat Division.

3rd Air Combat Division, HQ at Hwangju AB, Hwanghae-Bukdo Province, including:
- 4th Air Regiment (AR), based at Kwail/Pungchon AB, with three squadrons of MiG-17/J-5s,
- 56th AR, based at Hwangju AB, with three squadrons of MiG-21PF/J-7s,
- ? AR (either 11th or 303rd), based at Koksan AB, with three squadrons of MiG-21PF/J-7s,
- ? Bomber Regiment (BR), based at Taetan AB, with three squadrons of H-5 bombers,
- 6 SAM Brigades, deployed between Inchon, P’yongyang, Kaesong and Hwanghae, with SA-2s and SA-5s.

Huge numbers of MiG-15s and MiG-17s - as well as their Chinese-built copies, J-5 and J-6 - remain in service. Here a squadron of MiG-17Fs can be seen during preparations for winter-time exercise.

Probably an older photograph, showing the markings of the MiG-21F-13s "711" and "714" to full advantage.

Another row of MiG-21PFMs, this time lead by "401" which just started rolling towards the runway, equipped with K-13-training rounds.

5th Transport Division, HQ at Taechon AB, Pyongan-bukdo Province, including:
- ? Air Transport Regiment (ATR), at Mirim International Airport, P’yongyang, with Il-14/18/62/76s, some An-24s, and Tu-134/154s,
- ? ATR, based at Taechon, with a squadron of An-2/Y-5s,
- 2 ATRs, bases unknown, equipped with An-2/Y-5s,
- 2 ATRs, based at Packh’on AB, one equipped with Mi-4/Z-5s and Mi-8/17s, the other with Mi-2s,
- ? ATR, based at Pukchang AB, equipped with MD-500s.

6th Transport Division, HQ at Sondok AB, Hamgyong-namdo Province, including:
- ? ATR, based at Sondok, equipped with AN-2/Y-5s,
- 2 ATRs, bases unknown, equipped with An-2/Y-5s,
- 2 ATRs, based at Kanch’on, one equipped with Mi-4/Z-5s and Mi-8/17s and the other with Mi-2s,
- ? ATR, base unknown, equipped with MD-500D/Es.

8th Air Division, HQ at Orang AB, Hamgyong-bukdo Province
- ? Training Regiment (TR), based at Orang AB, with a squadron of MiG-15UTI/J-2/MiG-15s,
- 2 unknown TRs, based at Samiyon AB, with a squadron of MIG-15UTI/J-2/MiG-15s
- ? TR, based at Hyesan AB, with a squadron of An-2 and Y-5 transports
- ? TR, based at Kilchu AB, with a squadron of Mi-2 helicopters
- ? TR, operating with the Kimcha’ek Air Force Academy, at Chongjin, with a squadron of Yak-18/CJ-6 aircraft
- 1 Training SAM-Brigade, equipped with SA-2s

The DRPKAF also runs several “aircraft production centers”, including one each at P’yonghyon, Kusong, Tokhyon, and Chongjin, were all possible maintenance works can be undertaken and production of spare parts is running. These facilities have enabled it to keep a large number of its obsolete aircraft in service for longer than anybody could expect.

DPRKAF MiG-21PFM turning away and showing details of underwing markings to advantage.

DPRKAF MiG-21PFMs are obviously not used for purely intercept task: it is known that units frequently train also air-to-ground role.

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