Military

North Korea Upgrades Sunchon Airbase

Key Findings

  • Recent satellite imagery provides details into major maintenance and expansion at the Sunchon Airbase, which houses some of North Korea’s most modern and capable military aircraft in the Korean Air and Air Defense Force (KPAF)’s inventory.   
  • The first observed phase of the Sunchon maintenance and expansion project began sometime between April 11 – 14, 2021, when the Su-25 ground attack aircraft and the MiG-29 fighter aircraft were redeployed to different bases. This is highly suggestive of a far higher level of flight readiness than is normally attributed to these units, although this does not necessarily equate to combat readiness. 
  • The timing of the project and its associated aircraft movements were apparently designed to coincide, in part, with the KPAF annual summer training cycle, when KPAF aircraft are redeployed for flight training and to test operational readiness. 
  • Other maintenance and expansion work at the Airbase include additions and improvements to the runways, taxiways, and aircraft apron.  
  • When completed, the runway repair and extension efforts will not only improve the conditions of the runway and taxiways at the airbase, but also provide for a safer operating environment, additional parking space for aircraft, greater run-out for landing aircraft, and accommodation for more heavily loaded or larger aircraft. 

Following up on a recent report by Joseph Dempsey at IISS covering various North Korean Air and Air Defense Force (KPAF) developments, recent Maxar satellite imagery provides an opportunity to add details to North Korea’s major maintenance and expansion project at the Sunchon Airbase in Pyongan-namdo (South Pyongan Province).1

The Sunchon Airbase (39.412031, 125.89069) is a major KPAF base subordinate to KPAF headquarters and is home to two units of the 1st Air Combat Division KPAF—Unit #1017 (an air regiment) equipped with Su-25K/UBK ground attack aircraft and a squadron equipped with MiG-29B/SE/UB fighters of the 55th Air Regiment.2 Despite their age, these are some of the most modern and capable aircraft in the KPAF’s inventory.

Overview of the Sunchon Airbase, June 12, 2021. Click image to enlarge. 

The first observed phase of the Sunchon maintenance and expansion project began sometime between April 11­–14, 2021, when the base’s Su-25K aircraft were redeployed to Kaechon Airbase (39.752859, 125.901374) 38 kilometers to the north and the MiG-29 aircraft redeployed to the Pukchang Airbase (39.504614, 125.964610) 12 kilometers to the northeast.3 As also noted by Joseph Dempsey, what is notable about this movement is that all MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft known to be based at Sunchon were flown out to different bases.4 This is highly suggestive of a far higher level of flight readiness than is normally attributed to these units, although this does not necessarily equate to combat readiness.5

A section of the Pukchang Airbase showing the MiG-29B/SE/UB fighters from the Sunchon Airbase that have been deployed here, May 11, 2021. Click image to enlarge.
A section of the Kaechon Airbase showing the Su-25K/UBK ground attack aircraft from the Sunchon Airbase that have been deployed here, May 19, 2021. Click image to enlarge.

The timing of the project and its associated aircraft movements were apparently designed to coincide, in part, with the KPAF annual summer training cycle (June to mid-September).6 During the past 20 years, the KPAF has frequently used the period between the end of the winter training cycle and the summer training cycle to undertake major redeployments of KPAF aircraft for flight training and to test operational readiness.7

Work on the main runway was first noted on April 19, 2021, when large piles of gravel and sand were distributed on and alongside the main runway and taxiways. This work appears to have been centered primarily upon repairing damage to and improving the shoulders of the runway and taxiways, and on addressing some drainage problems. A runway extension project was also begun at the southern end of the runway.

The northern end of the Sunchon Airbase runway showing the area before maintenance and repair work began, May 6, 2021. Click image to enlarge.
The northern end of the Sunchon Airbase runway showing piles of gravel and rock and ongoing maintenance and repair work, June 12, 2021. Click image to enlarge.
The northeast section of the Sunchon Airbase showing ongoing runway maintenance and repair work and the site for the future aircraft apron, May 6, 2021. Click image to enlarge.
The northeast section of the Sunchon Airbase showing that runway maintenance and repair work is almost complete and the new aircraft apron is under construction. Also visible is excavation work to extract sand and gravel, and to improve drainage, June 12, 2021. Click image to enlarge.

By June 12, this work had apparently proceeded rapidly and expanded to include the addition of a new taxiway, a large aircraft apron on the northeast end of the airbase, and what appears to be an expansion of the existing aircraft apron near the southeast end of the airbase. The runway extension project appears as if it will add approximately 300 meters, bringing the total length to 2,800 meters. Improvement and minor rerouting of drainage around the airbase is also noted. 

The southeast section of the Sunchon Airbase showing ongoing runway maintenance and repair work and the initial work to expand the existing aircraft apron and to fill-in low spots to improve drainage, May 6, 2021. Click image to enlarge. 
The southeast section of the Sunchon Airbase showing that runway maintenance and repair work is almost complete. Also visible is the progress on expanding the existing aircraft apron and filling in of low spots to improve drainage, June 12, 2021. Click image to enlarge. 
The southern end of the Sunchon Airbase showing ongoing runway and apron maintenance and repair work and the initial stages of the 300-meter-long runway extension, May 6, 2021. Click image to enlarge. 
The southern end of the Sunchon Airbase showing that runway maintenance and repair work is almost complete. Also visible is the progress on the 300-meter-long runway extension, June 12, 2021. Click image to enlarge.

Notably, the June 12 image shows that the various control towers, radars, support buildings, housing areas, and etc. have remained unchanged. 

Aside from work on the taxiways around it, and the presence of some construction supplies and equipment, the large aircraft underground facility (hanger) under the hill mass at the center of the airbase appears to have remained largely unchanged so far.

The runway repair and extension efforts, when completed, will not only improve the conditions of the runway and taxiways at the airbase, but also provide for a safer operating environment, additional parking space for aircraft, greater run-out for landing aircraft, and accommodation for more heavily loaded or larger aircraft.

The large underground facility (hanger) at the Sunchon Airbase showing the entrances (two with netting over them) and its taxiways, May 6, 2021. Click image to enlarge. 
The large underground facility (hanger) at the Sunchon Airbase showing ongoing maintenance and repair work on the adjacent taxiways, June 12, 2021. Click image to enlarge. 

References

Show 7 Footnotes
  1. Dempsey, Joseph. “The North Korean Air Force: Fated to Have an Eternal Aircraft Inventory?,” IISS, June 18, 2021, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/military-balance/2021/06/north-korea-air-force-inventory. The airbase is also known as the Sunch’ŏn Airbase or, formerly as the P’yŏng-ni Airbase. P’yongan-namdo is also known as P’yŏngan-namdo or P’yŏnganam.
  2. KPAF Unit #1017 is a military unit cover designation (MUCD) for the unit. At present, its official designation is unknown. Unit #1017 is most often identified as being equipped with Su-25K/UBK ground attack aircraft. During flight demonstrations for Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un at Sunchon Airbase that include appearances by both Su-25s from Unit #1017 and MiG-29s from the 55th Air Regiment, some reporting conflates the two as being from Unit #1017. The “UB” designation represent the trainer version of the aircraft. Author interview data.
  3. The Pukchang Airbase is home to the 60th Air Regiment equipped with MiG-29ML/UB fighter aircraft. The Kaechon Airbase is home to the 35th Air Regiment equipped with MiG-19, MiG-15U, and MiG-17U fighters. “U” or “UB” being the trainer version of these aircraft).
  4. See “The North Korean Air Force: Fated to Have an Eternal Aircraft Inventory?”
  5. Author interview data.
  6. The late-summer and fall annual training cycles also dedicate time to harvesting and preparations for winter. Author interview data.
  7. Author interview data.