Kim Jong Un boards a Russian Su-57 and examines Su-35 Flanker

On the 15th of September, revered North Korean leader, Chairman Kim Jong Un, undertook an intensive exploration of the Komsomolsk-on-Amur aviation manufacturing facility. Amidst his expedition, he was escorted by the Russian Trade and Industry Minister, Denis Manturov, as they meticulously surveyed the factory’s production machinery and the assortment of aircraft on exposition. 

This facility, situated in the far-off reaches of the Russian East, is famed as the largest aviation plant within the country. It holds the reputation for constructing two of Russia’s foremost tactical combat jets, namely, the Su-35 and the Su-57 heavyweight fighters.  

Now occupying a central place in Russia’s defense strategy, both these aircrafts are being actively mass-produced in response to the orders placed by the Russian Defence Ministry. Chairman Kim exhibited a keen interest in a  training replica of the Su-57, Russia’s prided fifth-generation fighter. Further intrigue was sparked as they observed the Su-35 gracefully executing aerial stunts outside the factory premises. 

Kim Jong Un boards a Russian Su-57 and examines Su-35 Flanker
Photo credit: Twitter

This dynamic visit marks a pivotal moment within the landscape of defense cooperation shared by Russia and North Korea. This occurrence ensues the perpetuation of insubstantial reports from South Korean sources over the years, propagating speculations about North Korea’s intent to acquire Su-35 fighters from Russia. Rather than substantiating these claims, this visit has only grown their intrigue.

In contrast to China, South Korea, and the United States, both countries in question utilize their fighter aircrafts as extensions to their ground-based air defence networks, rather than relying solely on the aircrafts for air defence. This configuration lends itself well to the existing structure of North Korea’s aviation assets, indicating a congruity in their strategic military approach. 

Though North Korea boasts a formidable defence sector, it lacks self-sufficiency in the realm of manned combat aviation. The country has faced impediments in acquiring new Russian fighter aircrafts since the early 2000s, due to the enforcement of arms embargoes by the United Nations Security Council. This restriction constitutes a significant weakness in the otherwise extensive North Korean defence sector. 

With the mounting conflict between Russia and the Western Bloc, it is plausible that Russia may explore avenues to circumvent the imposed embargoes. Among the theoretical possibilities are the deployment of Russian personnel alongside delivered aircrafts. By doing so, Russia could assert that the aircrafts are stationed in North Korea as a part of a joint unit, avoiding the categorization as an export. Alternatively, they could establish a base for a Korean fighter unit within their own territory. 

The Su-35 and Su-57 fighter aircrafts, both boasting vast operational ranges, could feasibly execute operations across East Asia from bases situated in Russia’s Far East, thereby making the second option viable. Notwithstanding, North Korea’s ability to finance brand new fighter squadrons, it remains uncertain if they would invest in external assets instead of putting resources into their indigenous assets, such as their cost-effective air defence systems. Furthermore, the extent to which Russia is willing to contravene the regulations set forth by the United Nations Security Council still remains to be seen.

Russia will unveil the export Sukhoi Su-57E fighter in India
Photo credit: Rosoboronexport

The capacious assembly shop, wherein the final assembly of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 (SSJ-100) takes place, underwent observation by Chairman Kim. While this aircraft, produced for Russian civil aviation, may appear less advanced compared to its contemporaries from China, the United States, and Europe, it offers a marked improvement for North Korea, which has heretofore been reliant on the anachronistic Tu-204 airliners, a vestige of the late Soviet epoch. 

Should North Korea choose to replace its Tu-204 and Il-62M aircraft operated by its national flag carrier, Air Koryo, the newer Sukhoi jet would prove a worthy successor. Boasting significantly lower operational expenditures, the Sukhoi jet represents a prudent economic choice. Despite the praiseworthy refurbishment of their interiors, the age of the Tu-204 and Il-62M airframes imposes unavoidable limitations on Korean flights, a point that underscores the desirability of a fleet upgrade. 

It is important to note that the hurdles associated with supplying civilian airliners, such as the SSJ-100, to North Korea are markedly lower than those linked to supplying fighter aircraft. Russia remains the solitary probable provider of new aircraft to the state, affirming its unique position in the supply chain.

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