A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Peter Makowsky
Commercial satellite imagery from January 17 and 21, 2020, shows military aircraft flight preparations activity at North Korea’s Wonsan-Kalma International Airport. This is the first flight activity observed at this location since Kim Jong Un attended the Combat Flight Contest in November 2019. The purpose of this activity is unclear, but could indicate another flight drill in the near future or may be related to force readiness.
The Wonsan-Kalma Airfield served as a major air base for MiG-21, MiG-17 and MiG-15 fighter aircraft until early 2013, when North Korea decided to renovate the field and repurpose it as a dual-use, commercial and air force base. Prior to that date, this mix of aircraft would be observed on alert aprons or paired in large aircraft revetments. However, by March 10, 2013, all aircraft had departed as construction had begun. There was a brief redeployment in July 2015, but no aircraft were observed again until December 2016. At that time, a mix of these aircraft had returned but were relegated to the far southern apron areas, where it appeared that they had been placed into open storage or were in the process of being decommissioned.
The aircraft remained in that area until the November 2019 exercise, when they were moved to the alert apron and along a parking taxiway being used for displays. They were joined by a mix of other aircraft and helicopters flown in expressly for the exercise. It is unclear as to how many aircraft actually flew sorties, but each had their engines started at least once, as exhaust burns were visible behind each. Following the exercise, the locally-based aircraft were returned to the storage aprons in a tight array.
On the parking apron north of the passenger terminal, five MiG-21s and two service vehicles were observed on both dates, suggesting flight operations were either pending or underway.
Figure 1. Five MiG-21s and two service vehicles observed at parking apron.
On the alert apron at the south end of the airfield, eight MiG-21s and three MiG-17s were parked wingtip to wingtip. Three generator trucks were located near the aircraft on the 17th, and two on the 21st, further suggesting flight activity. Unrelated to the flight activity at this location, new construction work is underway on the east-west taxiway.
Figure 2. MiG-21s and MiG-17s parked at the alert apron.
Just south of the alert apron is a series of 12 aircraft shelters. On January 21, the nose cones of six possible MiG-23 aircraft were observed protruding from under the shelters. Aircraft are not usually observed near or in the shelters, but on two occasions, MiG-23s were present; one on September 20, 2016, and nine on November 11, 2019, suggesting that MiG-23 aircraft are sheltered there, albeit on November 11, six MiG-21s were also in the area.
Figure 3. Possible MiG-23s observed under aircraft shelters.
Adjacent to the rail transfer point located at the southwest side of the airfield, there are the two parking aprons. On both January 17 and 21, a total of nine MiG-21s and five MiG-15s were tightly parked together, again, suggesting the area serves as an open storage or holding location.
Figure 4. MiG-21s and MiG-15s parked near rail transfer point.
While most of the aircraft observed represent older-generation North Korean aircraft, the presence of more than 35 aircraft and their activity is unusual at this airfield. The Combatant Flight Contest-2019 was the first major exercise conducted from here since diplomacy began in 2018. This new activity is not as extensive so far, but similar in nature.
Adjacent to the Wonsan-Kalma Airfield is the newly constructed Wonsan Beach Resort, scheduled to open in April 2020. With its opening, commercial flight activity is expected to begin at the airfield. And while the volume of that commercial traffic is unknown, it could affect military flight operations during the tourist season, and thus be a factor in the activity presently observed.