During the Cold War, the North Korean Air Force was considered one of the largest and most capable air forces among the countries supported by the Soviet Union.
North Korea was also one of the few countries to equip both Soviet and Chinese fighters, thanks to its ingenious diplomacy. At its peak, the North Korean Air Force was the second largest in East Asia after China. It was even equipped with modern and more capable aircraft than those of China itself.
Korean pilots fought in other major wars around the world, and they were also highly regarded when deployed to Egypt and Syria in the early 1970s during the Yom Kippur War. The battles of the Korean War gave them valuable experiences. They initially used Soviet World War II Yak-9 to carry out attacks on American targets, and then switched to advanced MiG-15 fighter jets.
North Korea also paid great attention to air defense systems, due to the damage caused by Western bomber attacks. With substantial Soviet support, North Korea not only deployed some of the world’s most advanced long-range air defense systems at that time, the S-25 and S-75, but also equipped with modern fighters such as the MiG-17, MiG -19, and early variants of the MiG-21.
In the second half of the 1980s, North Korea purchased new generations of weapons from the Soviet Union, including the MiG-23, MiG-29, Su-25, and new air defense systems. After the end of the Cold War, North Korea faced a severe three-year natural disaster, accompanied by pressure from Western sanctions. They also lost their trading partners from the former Warsaw Pact. The North Korean economy was in decline.
To make up for the lack of a modern air force, North Korea has developed sophisticated air defense systems and advanced tactical ballistic missiles, to intercept enemy aircraft and possibly neutralize the enemy’s airport in the early stages of the war. North Korea’s asymmetric warfare strategy significantly balanced its strength relative to South Korea.
It is reported that North Korea has expressed interest in buying fighter jets from abroad. South Korean reports suggest that North Korea paid a great deal of attention to Russia’s Su-35 in the mid-2010s. Although Russia is interested in providing defense assistance to North Korea, due to UN Security Council regulations, Russian assistance is likely to be less public, and taken in the form of technology transfer in the field of defense, not the public sale of aircraft.
If the arms embargo against North Korea is lifted, it is likely that the MiG-23 will be the first fighter to retire due to its high operating costs compared to the MiG-21, and its limited capabilities compared with MiG-29.