North Korea may be preparing for a massive show of force, according to an analysis Friday of new satellite imagery that shows dozens of military aircraft parked wingtip to wingtip at an airport on the country’s east coast.
The purpose of the display seen in commercial satellite images of Wonsan-Kalma International Airport taken Monday and Wednesday, and shared by analysts at the North Korea-watching 38 North website, remains unclear. However, the analysis suggested the North may be preparing for a site visit by leader Kim Jong Un and a possible demonstration of its air force capabilities.
“Similarly, it may be reviving the suspended annual Korean People’s Army Air and Anti-Air Force Flight Drill Competition, which is usually observed by Kim Jong Un and demonstrates the air force’s ability to destroy enemy targets,” the analysis said.
The build-up includes fighters, helicopters, transport and attack aircraft. Military air demonstrations have been held at Wonsan in the past, including the Wonsan Air Show in 2016, but Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center think tank and the managing editor of 38 North, characterized the large number of aircraft assembled at the airport this week as “rare.”
The move could also be a signal to other countries, including the United States, which the North knows is constantly watching with its own military satellites.
“Certainly there is some political messaging here, mainly that the restraint from these kinds of shows of force over the past year is over,” Town told The Japan Times. “It’s likely many things have contributed to the decision to do this — although it’s still very unclear what exactly is going on.
Town said a site visit by Kim, demonstration, air drill competition or aerial exercise would not be out of character given the more confrontational rhetoric coming from Pyongyang in recent weeks.
Top North Korean officials have warned the United States in recent weeks that time is running out for the two sides to make progress in denuclearization negotiations, hinting of a return to weapons tests, including possible long-range missile launches and nuclear tests.
Though it appears large in numbers, the North Korean Air Force is comprised of largely obsolete aircraft, experts say.
According to a 2018 International Institute for Strategic Studies report on North Korea’s conventional military, the air force has 110,000 officers and enlisted personnel and approximately 1,650 aircraft. That force includes about 820 combat aircraft, 30 reconnaissance aircraft and 330 transport aircraft.
The report said that “during wartime, the force likely has the capability to conduct a limited, short-term strategic and tactical bombing offensive and to launch a surprise attack.”
But other analysts have noted that because the North relies on China for almost all of its jet fuel — which has long been under sanctions — it has to preserve the precious little fuel it does have. This means pilots have very few chances to train, creating an air force severely lacking in experience.