North Korea is going all out to secure armaments, as the presence of North Korean Air Force Commander Ri Pyong-chol on leader Kim Jong-il's visit to Russia indicates. Kim wrapped up his visit to Russia and returned to North Korea via China on Saturday.
During one visit to China in May last year, Kim brought along Ju Kyu-chang, the first vice-director of the Ministry of Defense Industry, and on his next visit in August, he brought Ju as well as Pak To-chun, Workers Party secretary for munitions.
A North Korean source said Kim "probably wanted China's help" in modernizing his country's aging weapons.
◆ Futile Missions
If China provided weapons to North Korea after the North's sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year, it would risk triggering a military confrontation between the two Koreas. "China can't simply ignore North Korea's request, which is why I believe it gave the North jeeps and military trucks," a source said.
Analysts say the reason why the reclusive Kim visited Russia just three months after his last China trip was probably because Beijing refused to supply him with state-of-the-art weapons. The fact that Ri accompanied him shows that North Korea is especially desperate to secure new fighter jets.
A day before his meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last Wednesday, Kim visited an aircraft manufacturing plant in Ulan-Ude. Built in the late 1930s, it remains one of Russia's major arms factories rolling out Sukhoi and MiG fighter jets and helicopters.
But Russia too is unlikely to provide him with fighter jets, because it worries about the consequences. The move could alarm Washington and prompt the U.S. Pacific Fleet to boost its defense of South Korea, triggering an arms race, while South Korea would inevitably be furious.
During his meetings with then-Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2001 and 2002, Kim also sought the sale of Sukhoi fighter jets and other state-of-the-art weapons, but Putin refused.
◆ Dilapidated Jets
The North has fallen sharply behind South Korea in terms of airpower. Experts conducted a simulated war game and found that South Korean and U.S. fighter jets could overpower North Korean aircraft and gain control of its airspace within three days. A comparative study on the military strengths of the two Koreas by the Agency for Defense Development in 2006 showed that the South Korean Army and Navy are inferior to the North's by 10 to 20 percent in terms of military power. But the South's Air Force had 103 percent the strength of the North Korean Air Force.
Some 70 percent of North Korea's fighter jets are MiG-15, 17, 19 and 21s that were built in the 1950s to 1960s. A lack of fuel has prevented pilots from training properly, and a shortage of parts has left the aircraft in bad shape.
North Korea has around 40 MiG-23 and around 10 MiG-29s, which can be considered relatively new models. But the MiG-23 is overpowered by South Korea's KF-16 fighter jets, while the MiG-29 is either equal to or inferior to the KF-16. While the bulk of the South's Air Force consists of aging F-4 and F-5 fighter jets, it also has around 170 KF-16 and F-16s and around 50 of the state-of-the-art F-15K fighter jets. No North Korean aircraft is capable of taking on the F-15K.
The difference in airpower is expected to widen further with the South planning to bring in four more E-737 "Peace Eye" airborne early warning and control aircraft next year.