Following the White House report on January 2 that the Russian Armed Forces were using North Korean KN-23B ballistic missiles in combat in Ukraine, speculation has grown that Russia could seek to export combat aircraft to its East Asian neighbour to help offset the costs of the acquisitions. Indeed, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby himself stated that Russia was expected pay for new acquisitions of Korean hardware with both technology transfers and with fighter plane exports, raising significant questions regarding how this would be achieved. North Korea has in recent years invested in modernising its air force facilities, and unveiled new classes of indigenous air to air missiles, with work initiated in 2021 at one of its most critical air bases, Sunchon Airfield located 45 kilometres northeast of Pyongyang where the main runway was lengthened and the aircraft shelters, aprons and taxiways improved. With the country having comprehensively modernised its ground based air defences with increasingly capable new generations of surface to air missile systems, it is likely that the county will seek to invest in complementary acquisitions of new fighter aircraft to play a supporting role in the air.
North Korea’s last known acquisitions of fighter aircraft were 30 MiG-21BiS third generation fighters purchased from Kazakhstan in 1997 and modernised domestically. The full order for 40 aircraft was never fulfilled due to U.S. intervention and pressure on Kazakhstan, highlighting the struggles Pyongyang faced in the post-Soviet era where all major trading partners with the exception of Iran were highly cautious of displeasing Washington. The country was also reported by South Korean sources to have continued license production of MiG-29 fourth generation fighters with Russian support into the early 2000s, with Korean built MiGs having first flown in 1993 and 15 having been manufactured by the end of the decade. Although South Korean sources reported a decade later that Pyongyang was seeking to acquire Russian Su-35 fighters for its air force – a heavyweight counterpart to the MiG-29 with ‘4+ generation’ capabilities – two primary factors prevented Moscow from selling new aircraft to its neighbour. The first was the need to maintain relations with South Korea and the United States, which from the 1990s was strongly prioritised by Moscow, while a second much greater barrier was imposed by the passage of United Nations Security Council resolutions UNSC 1718 and UNSC 1874 adopted in 2006 and 2009 respectively which banned the export of anything other than small arms to the country.
Providing insight into how Russia could seek to bypass the Security Council’s arms embargo, expert on North Korean security A. B. Abrams highlighted that Moscow had two primary means of achieving this. The first would be “to export fighters from classes the country already fields such as the MiG-29, with any externally identifiable upgrades on the newer models being plausibly deniable as having been made domestically. With only a single regiment of these aircraft already in service, it could be claimed that any more units viewed on satellite imagery have merely been brought out of storage and were delivered before the embargo was imposed – although new units could benefit from new avionics, radars and weaponry passed off as indigenous upgrades.” He highlighted that violations of the arms embargo “would thus retain a degree of plausible deniability,” while the relatively low cost MiG-29 is still an optimal fighter for North Korea’s defence needs which could be afforded to outfit multiple squadrons.
A second option highlighted by Abrams which could be much more transformative for the balance of power in East Asia would be “to use the premise sharing of weapons systems and formation of joint units between the two countries” – highlighting the pretexts of both joint Sino-Soviet air units in the Korean War and of American sharing of nuclear weapons for joint operations with NATO members in Europe. The scholar noted to this effect:
“should North Korea acquire Russian combat aircraft other than MiG-29s, such as the more advanced Su-35 and Su-57 fighters recently inspected by its leader Kim Jong Un on a visit to Russia in September, these could be accompanied by Russian personnel at North Korean bases and presented as operating under a joint Russian-led unit – whatever the reality of the command structures under which they actually function. Such long range fighters, which are very easily capable of flying across Korea from airfields across the Russian border, could even be deployed between bases in the two countries to further this perception – while retaining duties such as interceptions of American bombers near the peninsula and flyovers during military parades in Pyongyang.”
Abrams added that it could be emphasised that these units “are equipped solely for air defence duties, and are not capable of deploying nuclear weapons and perhaps no air-to-surface weapons at all,” which “would be key to dispelling any criticisms that Russia was in any way condoning the North Korean nuclear weapons program – which has been the premise for all UNSC resolutions sanctioning the country. This could significantly reduce the fallout that could ensue from such a decision.” He highlighted a Russian interest in preserving the UN system which would likely prevent it from fully and openly violating Security Council resolutions without using loopholes. Abrams added that although many of the future avenues Russian-North Korean defence cooperation could take “may appear quite fantastical, just two years ago the idea of Russia importing North Korean ballistic missiles and artillery… would itself have sounded highly implausible” – and that with intensifying geopolitical conflict “what was once dismissed as highly unlikely in the three decades after the Cold War will increasingly appear possible as great power conflict intensifies.”
Abrams’ assessment comes after Russia in 2023 doubled production of its to fighter the fifth generation Su-57, with output set to increase by a further 80-90 percent in 2024 allowing domestic orders to be filled while leaving spare capacity for exports. It also follows Russia’s proliferation of nuclear weapons to Belarus in 2023 under a ‘sharing’ agreement similar to those pursued by the United States with its European allies – a similar loophole to bypass international restrictions on exporting of such capabilities.