This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
With leader Kim Jong Un looking on, North Korea’s air force launched 150 planes in a rare drill over the weekend that required a month’s worth of intensive pilot training and burned through precious jet fuel that has been in short supply since the 1990s, military sources in the country told RFA.
Saturday’s exercise appeared to be largely meant for propaganda purposes, as state TV and radio carried repeated programs about the event since Monday, a national holiday marking the founding of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, according to a military source from the northern province of Ryanggang, who asked not to be identified.
“For this training exercise, the entire air force has made a fuss and conducted intensive training since last month,” said the source. “Despite the shortage of jet fuel these days, many aircraft participated in the drill. The drill was directly observed by Kim Jong Un and the air force command officials came to each division to supervise practice for over two weeks.”
The state-run Korea Central News Agency praised the “gallant combat pilots,” who showed “the might of the people’s air force and creditably carried out the Party’s order of training by displaying matchless bravery and indomitable fighting spirit in the large-scale air attack combined drill unprecedented in the army-building history.”
The Rodong Sinmun newspaper meanwhile cited the return of the USS Ronald Reagan to the region as the reason for the drill. The aircraft carrier participated in naval exercises with the South Korean navy on Friday in response to North Korea launching a missile over Japan earlier in the week.
The North Korea’s aging air force has a fleet of 572 front-line warplanes, many of which were manufactured in the 1950s and ‘60s, according to a 2021 Forbes report, including hundreds of Soviet-era MiG-17s, MiG-19s and MiG-21s, or Chinese copies of them.
The exercise was an attempt to downplay the shabbiness of the North Korean air force, according to another source, a resident of Orang county in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong, who once served as an air force officer. “The public is aware of the poor condition of our air force, including the outdated airplanes and lack of jet fuel,” the source said.
The pilots participating in the exercise had to live away from their families for a month to train, according to the source. “The reason pilots did not go to their homes and lived as a group is because of the lack of nutritious food,” the first source said.
In North Korea, on-duty pilots receive the highest level of monthly rations, which include luxuries like meat, cooking oil, eggs, butter, chocolate, beer, and cigarettes.
Those resources are also in short supply after two years without imports from China due to the coronavirus pandemic between 2020 and 2021, and only spotty rail freight from China in 2022.
“Pilots often share their rations with their families because there are nationwide food shortages,” the source said. “The family can also sell some of the rations on the market, such as the cigarettes and beer.”
The attack drill was the first in years, the second source, the former air force officer, said.
“Residents became worried when they saw the MiGs training and heard their loud roar every day at Orang airport,” he said. “Media reports yesterday showed that the flight practice was for the big drill that Kim Jong Un attended.”
“Pilots rarely train these days due to a lack of fuel dating back to the ‘Arduous March’ in the mid-1990s,” said the source, referring to the 1994-1998 North Korean famine which killed millions, as much as 10 percent of the population by some estimates.
“There is only a little flight training when the pilots first learn to fly, and then the regular flight training that is supposed to happen every quarter, but has not always been done properly,” he said. “Tactical training is often done using toy airplanes on the ground.”