Could Russia trade new MiG-29 fighters for North Korean weapons?
The visit of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to North Korea in the latter part of July, to partake in the 70th-anniversary commemorations of the Korean War’s end, has sparked conjecture. The focus of this speculation is the possibility of Russia aiming to procure an array of military hardware from its Eastern Asian ally.
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Since the middle of 2022, numerous Western sources have circulated reports concerning the alleged acquisition of North Korean artillery shells and similar weaponry by Russian forces. The White House even echoed these reports in November.
Notably, North Korea boasts one of the globe’s most extensive and varied defense industries. Often, it manufactures equipment that surpasses the specifications of its Russian equivalents or produces items that Russia does not. North Korea’s enormous reserves and production capabilities for military assets, such as artillery shells, rockets, and ballistic missiles, position its defense sector as a potentially invaluable addition to Russia’s expanding output.
The compatibility of military equipment from both countries is high, allowing for their combined use by several foreign operators. Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising that the rumors of Russia tapping into North Korea’s defense sector are gaining traction.
The North Korean defense sector
North Korea’s defense sector, for the most part, operates self-sufficiently. Yet, there exists a substantial potential for Russia to finance its armament imports through bartering equipment from sectors that its neighboring country, North Korea, doesn’t manufacture. This is not an unprecedented occurrence. A parallel can be drawn from Russia’s reported import of various drone models from Iran in 2022. These drones were reportedly deployed in Ukraine and paid for by exporting Su-35S heavyweight fighter jets.
In the case of North Korea, the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council necessitates that any arms exports fall into categories that North Korea could feasibly produce domestically. Alternatively, they should be items with the potential for dual civilian use or closely mimic assets that North Korea already deploys.
Given the prevailing UN system, Russia cannot supply Su-35 fighters to North Korea unless there’s a systemic breakdown that would make Russia more inclined to openly violate Security Council resolutions. However, it is plausible for Russia to provide North Korea with MiG-23ML/MLD and MiG-29 fighters, which Pyongyang already has in its arsenal.
MiG-29 for North Korea
Between 14 and 28 MiG-29s were procured by North Korea from the USSR, before obtaining the license to manufacture the aircraft domestically in 1987. This led to the establishment of a modest production line in North Pyongan province. The inaugural flight of a North Korean-assembled MiG-29 took place on April 15, 1993. According to Russian evaluations, these locally produced aircraft were of a quality comparable to those manufactured in the USSR. The duration of this indigenous production remains unclear, but it’s speculated to have concluded sometime in the 2000s following the cessation of Russian fighter kit supplies.
While the sophisticated MiG-29M, markedly different from Soviet models, was likely not provided, Russia still holds numerous Soviet MiG-29 airframes in reserve, many of which are barely used or completely unused, with some even remaining unassembled from their kits.
These airframes could potentially be upgraded to a standard akin to the MiG-29SMT, featuring ‘4+ generation’ avionics, including phased array radars. This would signify a substantial enhancement in capabilities for North Korean aviation while maintaining an exterior nearly identical to the MiG-29s delivered by the Soviet Union.
Russia could also potentially supply North Korea with MiG-23ML/MLD airframes that are currently stored in reserve, although there remains a lesser likelihood of these being modernized as well.
Retirement of old fighters
North Korea’s potential acquisition of new MiG-23ML/MLD and MiG-29 units could pave the way for the country to retire its older second-generation fighters, such as early production MiG-21s, MiG-19s, and Chinese J-6s.
These new additions to the fleet would not only signify a step forward in modernizing their air defense but may also be a more economical choice. Contemporary airframes often require less maintenance, translating into cost savings for the Korean People’s Army Air Force.
The decision to invest in more advanced fighter aircraft, however, remains uncertain. North Korea’s defense budget currently seems to prioritize assets like rocket artillery, ground-based air defenses, and increasingly sophisticated cruise and ballistic missile systems. Nevertheless, the potential for barter deals in arms exports presents a feasible means for acquiring these new fighters, thereby keeping the costs minimal.
Russia, with its history of providing MiG-29s as an aid to countries like Serbia and Syria, may be a viable source for these assets. The country could offer these aircraft at significantly reduced prices or even provide some units free of charge. A bolstered North Korean air defense capability aligns with Russia’s interests, particularly given the shifting power dynamics in the Russian Far East. The strengthening of North Korean air power could tilt the balance less favorably towards the Western Bloc and its regional allies, especially amidst escalating tensions in Europe and Northeast Asia. This could make the prospect of a major war appear more imminent.
The MiG-23ML/MLD, a highly modernized and reimagined variant of the USSR’s premier third-generation fighter aircraft, boasted a host of impressive features. Its radar system deemed superior to that of early F-16 variants by Western sources, was just one of the many notable updates. The fighter also sported new wings, materials, sensors, and weaponry.
Israeli operators, who acquired a single airframe through a Syrian defection, were particularly impressed by its climb rate. During testing in Israel, the MiG-23ML/MLD was able to leave American-made F-15 and F-16 aircraft far behind after takeoff. During the South African Border War, the Cuban Air Force demonstrated the fighter’s potency against South African Mirage F1s.
Despite these accolades, the MiG-23ML/MLD fell out of favor by the 1980s due to its lack of cost-effectiveness compared to the more advanced MiG-29, which demonstrated its prowess in combat over Kuwait in 1991 and in subsequent testing.
Both aircraft, particularly the basic Soviet-era variants, were hindered by their low endurance, which limited their operational range. This has led Russia to phase out the MiG-29s from frontline service. However, for North Korea, whose operations do not extend far beyond its relatively small airspace, these aircraft are ideally suited for air defense duties, complementing its ground-based air defense assets.
New, better North Korean missiles
North Korea has recently shown signs of developing sophisticated new air-to-air missile classes, which could provide a significant boost to any delivered fighters. It is unlikely that Russia would export advanced post-Cold War missile classes to the country with any new fighters.
This development could position North Korea to deploy combat jets that surpass the capabilities of any currently in service. The fact that neither the MiG-29 nor the MiG-23 was designed for nuclear strikes may limit the international repercussions for Russia should its arms transfers be discovered, given that the UN Security Council embargoes were all enacted to curb the East Asian state’s nuclear weapons programs.
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