The KPA Air Force includes air defense. There are approximately 110,000 to 120,000 active members of the Air Force, including 7,000 special forces troops, out of 1.2 million in the armed forces. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021; Library of Congress 2007]

According to Associated Press: Here’s where the “legacy” aspect of the North Korean military really kicks in. North Korea hasn’t acquired any new fighter aircraft for decades. Its best fighters are 1980s-era MiG-29s bought from the Soviet Union, the MiG-23 and SU-25 ground attack aircraft. They all suffer chronic fuel shortages and pilots get little training time in the air. Its air-defense systems are aging and it continues to maintain lots of 1940s-era An-2 COLT aircraft, a single-engine, 10-passenger biplane, which would probably be most useful for the insertion of special forces troops behind enemy lines. Interestingly enough, it also has some U.S.-made MD-500 helicopters, which it is believed to have acquired by bypassing international sanctions. They were shown off during a parade in 2013. It is believed to have a growing number of drones. [Source: Associated Press, March 1, 2016]

In the mid 2000s, The air force had a strength of 110,000, with four air divisions organized into 33 air regiments plus three independent air battalions. Three of the divisions were responsible for north, east, and south defense sectors; a fourth — a training division — was responsible for the northeast sector. The air force had 11 airbases located at strategic points — many aimed at lightning strikes against key South Korean targets — mostly in southern North Korea, with some in rear areas closer to the border with China. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

Organization and Capability of the North Korean Air Force

The air force became a separate service in 1948. The air force adapted Soviet and Chinese tactics and doctrine to reflect North Korea's situation, requirements, and available resources. Its primary mission was air defense of the homeland. Secondary missions include tactical air support to the army and the navy, transportation and logistic support, and insertion of special operations forces. A large force, the air force also can provide limited support to ground forces. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

In 1992 the air force comprised about 1,620 aircraft and 70,000 personnel. There were three air combat commands under the direct control of the Air Command at Chunghwa, one air division (the Eighth Air Division, probably headquartered at rang) in the northeast, and the Civil Aviation Bureau under the State Administration Council. The air combat commands, consisting of different mixes of fighters, bombers, transports, helicopters, reconnaissance aircraft, and surface-to- air missile (SAM) regiments, were created by integrating and reorganizing existing air divisions during the mid- to late 1980s. Decentralized command and control gave more authority to regional commands. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

North Korea had approximately seventy air bases, including jet and non-jet capable bases and emergency landing strips, with aircraft deployed to about twenty of them. The majority of tactical aircraft were concentrated at air bases around Pyongyang and in the southern provinces. Pyongyang can place almost all its military aircraft in hardened — mostly underground — shelters. In 1990-91, North Korea activated four forward air bases near the DMZ, which increased its initial southward reach and decreased warning and reaction times for Seoul.*

The air force has a marginal capability for defending North Korean airspace and a limited ability to conduct air operations against South Korea. Its strengths are its large numbers of aircraft, a system of well-dispersed and well-protected air facilities, and an effective, if rudimentary, command and control system. Its weaknesses include limited flight training; forced reliance on outside sources for aircraft, most of its missiles, radars, and associated equipment; and maintenance problems associated with older aircraft. The effectiveness of ground training — on which the pilots heavily depend — is difficult to judge because there is no information on Pyongyang's acquisition or use of sophisticated flight simulators.

Pilot proficiency is difficult to evaluate because it is crudely proportionate to hours and quality of flight time. Although the Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense's Defense White Paper, 1990 states that flight training levels are 60 percent of South Korea's, other sources believe the figure is closer to 20 to 30 percent. Lower flight times are attributed to fuel shortages, a more conservative training philosophy, and perhaps a concern for older airframe life expectancies or maintenance infrastructure capacity.*

Aircraft of the North Korean Air Force

In the mid 2010s, North Korea had over 800 combat aircraft, 300 helicopters and more than 300 transport planes. In the mid 2000s the North Korean air force had 80 bombers, 541 fighters and ground attack fighters, an estimated 316 transports, 588 transport helicopters (supported by 24 armed helicopters), 228 training aircraft, at least 1 unmanned air vehicle, and a large inventory of air-to- air missiles and surface-to-air missiles. [Source: Associated Press, March 1, 2016; Library of Congress, July 2007**]

In early 2000s, North Korea purchased 30 MiG-29 fighter planes. The MiG-29 resembles an American-made F-16 and has two powerful engines that allow it to take off almost vertically like a rocket. Pilots have sight-and-shoot helmets which allow them to fire laser-guided missiles under the wings by simply staring at the enemy target for two seconds. The Soviet Union was supposed help North Korea produce 12 MiG-29s a year but the contract was nullified when the Soviet Union collapsed.

North Korea produces no aircraft itself, although it does produce spare parts for many of its aircraft. Its aircraft fleet of Soviet and Chinese manufacture is primarily of 1950s and 1960s technology, with rudimentary avionics and limited weapons systems capability. In the mid- to late 1980s, the Soviet Union supplied a variety of a limited number of more modern all-weather air defense and ground attack aircraft. Most ground attack regiments have older model Soviet and Chinese light bombers and fighters with limited range and combat payloads. **

In the 1990s the North Korea air force had 82,000 people, 509 combat aircraft, including 35 Su-25s, 40 MiG-29s, 46 MiG-23s and 130 MiG-19s.. North Korea has a few top-of-the-line MIG 29s, but most of their planes are older MiG-19s and MIG 21s, antiquated Russian-built supersonic aircraft first deployed in 1955. Their pilots are more poorly trained and the airplanes are poorly maintained. A leak of fuel and spare parts has mean that North Korea pilots spend much less time in the air than their American and South Korean counterparts. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Pyongyang was rather late in recognizing the full potential of the helicopter. During the 1980s, the North Korean armed forces increased their helicopter inventory from about forty to about 300. In 1985 North Korea circumvented United States export controls to indirectly buy eighty-seven United Statesmanufactured civilian versions of the Hughes MD-500 helicopters before the United States government stopped further deliveries. Reports indicate that at least sixty of the helicopters delivered were modified as gunships. Because South Korea licenses and produces the MD-500 for use in its armed forces, the modified helicopters were useful in North Korea's covert or deceptive operations. The transport fleet has some Soviet transports from the 1950s and 1960s.*

Air Defense in North Korea

Operational thinking reflects both Soviet doctrine and the North Korean experience of heavy bombing during the Korean War. The result has been in reliance on air defense. Military industries, aircraft hangars, repair facilities, ammunition, fuel stores, and even air defense missile systems are placed underground or in hardened shelters. North Korea has an extensive interlocking, redundant nationwide air defense system that includes interceptor aircraft, early warning and groundcontrolled intercept radars, SAMs, a large number of air defense artillery weapons, and barrage balloons. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

At the national level, air defense was once the responsibility of the Air Defense Command, a separate entity from the air force, but which probably was collocated with the Air Force Headquarters in Pyongyang. However, that function probably was transferred to the air force in the late 1980s.*

The air combat commands appear to have primary responsibility for integrated air defense and are organized with semiautomated warning and interception systems to control SAMs, interceptor aircraft, and air defense artillery units. The First Air Combat Command, in the northwest, probably headquartered at Kaech'n, is responsible for the west coast to the border with China, including Pyongyang. The Second Air Combat Command, headquartered at Toksan, covers the northeast and extends up the east coast to the Soviet border. The Third Air Combat Command, headquartered at Hwangju in the south, is responsible for the border with South Korea and the southernmost areas along the east and west coasts.*

Important military and industrial complexes are defended by antiaircraft artillery. Point defenses are supplemented by barrage balloons. North Korea has an exceptionally large number of antiaircraft sites. The largest concentration is along the DMZ and around major cities, military installations, and factories.*

The bulk of North Korean radars are older Soviet and Chinese models with vacuum-tube technology, which limits continuous operations. The overall early warning and ground controlled intercept system is susceptible to saturation and jamming by a sophisticated foe with state-of-the-art electronic warfare capabilities. Nevertheless, the multilayered, coordinated, mutually supporting air defense structure is a formidable deterrent to air attack. Overlapping coverage and redundancy make penetration of North Korean air defenses a challenge.*

Civil aviation is subordinate to the air force. Since joining the International Civil Aviation Organization in 1977, the Civil Aviation Bureau has operated as a public airline, although public access by the North Korean citizenry is, like all travel, restricted. The bureau operates international and domestic flights and operations supporting conventional civil aviation, military airlift, and logistic support. Although the Civil Aviation Bureau is not a military organization, its subordination to the air force command makes its equipment, facilities, and personnel readily available for military use in the event of a national emergency or mobilization. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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