Military

Continued Expansion and Upgrade Work at Sunchon Airbase

Key Findings

  • Recently acquired satellite imagery shows North Korea is making slow but steady progress with its renovation and expansion project at the Sunchon Airbase.  
  • The base is home to North Korean Air and Air Defense Force (KPAF) Unit #1017, consisting of an air regiment equipped with MiG-29B/SE/UB fighters (55th Air Regiment) and an air regiment equipped with Su-25K/UBK ground attack aircraft.
  • Despite the age of these aircraft, they represent the KPAF’s best air defense and ground attack capabilities.
  • When completed, the renovation and expansion project at the Sunchon Airbase will provide a safer operating environment, additional parking space for aircraft, greater run-out for landing aircraft, accommodation for more heavily loaded or larger aircraft, and the potential for generating greater sortie rates.

Satellite imagery collected on July 5, 2022, provides an opportunity to update the status of the major renovation and expansion project of the North Korean Air and Air Defense Force’s (KPAF) Sunchon Airbase that began in April 2021.

As described in our report from 2021, the Sunchon Airbase (39.412031, 125.89069) is located in Pyongan-namdo (South Pyongan Province) and serves as the home base for KPAF Unit #1017, consisting of an air regiment equipped with MiG-29B/SE/UB fighters (55th Air Regiment) and an air regiment equipped with Su-25K/UBK ground attack aircraft—subordinate to 1st Air Combat Division KPAF.1 Despite the age of these aircraft, they represent the KPAF’s best air defense and ground attack capabilities.

The existing main runway, taxiways, and hardstand have been torn up in the past year. The main runway has been replaced by a new one that has wider shoulders and is extended by approximately 300-meters (bringing the total length to 2,800 meters). It can accommodate more heavily ladened or larger aircraft. Of the three original hardstands:

  • the one along the northern end of the main runway has been replaced;
  • part of the operational hardstand at the southern end of the main runway has been removed to make way for the main runway extension and replaced by one separate but parallel to the main runway;
  • and the one in the southeast corner has been expanded with aircraft shelters but remains to be paved.

Additionally, a fourth new hardstand with what appears to be the start of construction of aircraft shelters is being built on the northeast corner. These shelters’ size, shape, and layout appear similar to those present at Kalma International Airport (Wonsan Airbase). The taxiways have not yet been repaved; however, it appears that this will take place after the construction of the hardstands is completed. In addition to these changes, an improvement to and minor rerouting of drainage around the airbase is also noted.

There are a number of unidentified objects in front of the large underground facility (aircraft hangar) under the hill mass at the center of the airbase. It is unclear what, if anything, has been done within the underground facility.2

Kim Jong-il pointing to a Su-25 from KPAF Unit #1017 inside the underground facility at Sunchon Airbase, December 27, 2008. (KCTV)

At present, no markings (e.g., threshold, touchdown zone, etc.) have been applied to the runway, and the satellite imagery shows no evidence of the installation of approach lighting, runway edge lights, or an instrument landing system (ILS).

While it would generally be accepted that the units previously based here would return when the renovation and expansion project is complete, this cannot be determined at this time.

When completed, the renovation and expansion project at the Sunchon Airbase will provide a safer operating environment, additional parking space for aircraft, greater run-out for landing aircraft, accommodation for more heavily loaded or larger aircraft, and the potential for greater sortie rates.

References

Show 2 Footnotes
  1. Over the years, flight demonstrations for Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un at Sunchon Airbase have included appearances by Unit #1017’s Su-25s and MiG-29s. The “UB” designation represents the trainer version of the aircraft. Interview data acquired by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.; and Kim, Sungjin 김성진. “김정은 방문 ‘1017부대’는 평양방어기지…주력 전투기 미그-29 공개 (‘Unit 1017’ which Kim Jong-un visited a defense base for Pyongyang…main fighter aircraft MiG-29 unveiled)”. Newsis, April 17, 2019, https://newsis.com/view/?id=NISX20190417_0000623466.
  2. Since 2014, North Korea has launched approximately eight short- and medium-range ballistic missiles from the Sunchon area. Some of these may have been staged through the UGF at the Sunchon Airbase. Interview data acquired by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.