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HomeAsiaDrones replacing airfields as they disappear, suggests Radio Free Asia

Drones replacing airfields as they disappear, suggests Radio Free Asia

The military airfield at Ryongsong in Pyongyang, seen at left on March 31, 2023, has been replaced by a group of buildings in the Jan. 5, 2024 image at right. (Google Earth and Planet Labs images with RFA analysis) Satellite imagery reveals that North Korea has demolished or repurposed nine runways or airfields, a move that experts say could signal a shift away from manned aircraft in favor of missiles and drones. Four of the airfields were found to have been converted into parks for horseback-riding – a hobby of supreme leader Kim Jong Un – or property with other buildings, images show. Other airfields were transformed into greenhouse farms for vegetables. Uiju airfield in North Pyongan province, meanwhile, is being used as a coronavirus quarantine center, and Kumgang Airport in Kangwon province has been neglected to the point where no trace of the runway can be found. Without clear indications about what is behind the changes, experts are seeking to discern the motives and strategies at work. “I think North Korea first decided to reduce the importance of its military aircraft because of their vulnerability, and initially transitioned heavily to ballistic missiles,” Bruce Bennett, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation told RFA Korean. “Now the North has been adding cruise missiles and drones.” While Pyongyang has not abandoned its pursuits in aviation, “it has certainly downgraded them, especially commercial aviation and the dispersal airfields for its combat aircraft,” Bennett said. North Korea could be reducing its reliance on its outdated aircraft, said Bruce Songhak Chung, a researcher at the South Korea-based Korean Institute for Security and Strategy, told Radio Free Asia. The military airfield at Kangdong in Pyongyang, seen at left on Nov. 9, 2020, has been converted into a greenhouse farm for growing vegetables in the Dec. 1, 2022 image at right. (Google Earth and Planet Labs images with RFA analysis) North Korea may be intending to concentrate its dispersed air power, said Yang Uk, a research Fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in South Korea. “Airfields and runways are disappearing in North Korea, but General Secretary Kim Jong Un knows how important air power is, so this could be a process of modernization,” he said. “It is quite possible that they are now seriously preparing to dispose of outdated aircraft, strengthening existing power, or introducing a new strategy.” Yang also said that the possibility of introducing additional aircraft with Russia’s help cannot be ruled out as North Korea strengthens military cooperation with Russia. Changes to specific aircraft seem to point to this, said Cho Han Bum, a senior researcher at the South Korea-based Korea Institute for National Unification. “We have detected evidence at Pyongyang International Airport that the IL-76 [Ilyushin-76] aircraft are being converted into early warning aircraft, but this is impossible without Russia’s help,” said Cho. “There is a possibility that the relationship between Russia and North Korea will accelerate significantly in 2024.” Drone power North Korea may be trying to strengthen its asymmetric power, such as nuclear weapons and missiles, and replace its aging jets with drones or other unmanned aerial vehicles. “The Kim Jong Un regime is trying to diversify its threats to attract more international attention,” said Bennett. “It is a big possibility that North Korea, having seen Russia use drones in the war in Ukraine, will develop them and use them for provocations against South Korea.” The military airfield at Wonsan in North Korea’s Gangwon province, seen at left on July 21, 2019, has been converted into horse-riding grounds in the Oct. 30, 2023 image at right. (Google Earth and Planet Labs images with RFA analysis) Kim showed great interest in attack drones during his visit to the military exhibition hall in Vladivostok, during the North Korea-Russia summit in September. He received five suicide drones – attack aircraft not designed to return to base – and one surveillance drone as gifts from the governor of Primorsky Krai. In addition, the North Korean military unveiled the Saetbyol-4 strategic unmanned surveillance aircraft and the Saetbyol-9 attack drone last year. The military was also seen training with new drones in frontline areas. Unmanned aerial vehicles are advantageous in that they can take off and land on narrow and shorter runways than regular fighter planes. “It depends on the type [of drone],” Yang said. “The quadcopter does not need a separate space for loading and unloading. For fixed wing drones, you may need a runway, but it varies depending on the size.” He said the Saetbyol-4 and Saetbyol-9 can take off and land on normal or slightly shorter-sized runways, but the drones smaller than these can be launched from the ground or on trucks. Drones have been actively used in Russia’s war in Ukraine and in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. North Korea has also experimented with drones. In December 2022, five North Korean drones crossed the Military Demarcation Line into South Korean territory. In that incident, the drones crossed into areas to the north and northwest of Seoul, including over the cities of Gimpo and Paju, and also over Ganghwa Island, in the Yellow Sea. It was later revealed that some drones even flew into the airspace around the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan district. The three airfields that appear to be converted into horseback riding parks are Wonsan in Gangwon Province, Mount Myohyang in Jagang province, and Sinchon Airfield in South Hwanghae province, experts say. Three airfields that now seem to be greenhouse farms include Yeonpo in South Hamgyong province, Kyongsong in North Hamgyong province, and Kangdong in Pyongyang. Limited capabilities Evaluations of North Korea’s drone technology have drawn mixed results. The North Korean drones that infiltrated South Korea in 2022 were Chinese-made commercial drones, Yang said, making it difficult to view them as indicative of North Korea’s technological capabilities. The military airfield at Yeonpo in North Korea’s South Hamgyong province, seen at left on March 30, 2021, has been converted into a greenhouse farm for growing vegetables in the Dec. 3, 2023 image at right. (Google Earth and Planet Labs images with RFA analysis) The level of strategic threat is low because real-time control is not possible,” he said. “Even if they were converted to attack, there is a limited number of bombs that could be loaded on them. On the other hand, Kim Tae Woo, the president at the Korea Institute for National Unification, noted that if North Korean drones can infiltrate South Korean airspace, they can also be used for attacks at any time and pose a potential threat. “For example, even if a small can of anthrax, a biochemical weapon, is carried and detonated over Seoul, it would be a huge catastrophe,” said Kim. “As drones become larger and develop increased capacity, small nuclear warheads can be attached to them.” He said that even a simple surveillance mission is threatening to South Korea. “But if a drone is made to self-destruct and it is loaded with biochemical substances or nuclear warheads, it poses a huge threat to South Korea,” said Kim. However, replacing the combat power of an air force with unmanned aerial vehicles is impossible, Yang said. “The question is to what extent North Korea can expand its unmanned aerial vehicles,” he said. “In the end, I think North Korea will find its own optimal solution by looking at the cases used in the recent war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war.” Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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