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Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET
North Korea may be preparing a military air demonstration of a sort it hasn’t carried out for over a year.
Satellite images obtained exclusively by NPR show dozens of aircraft lined up at the Wonsan International Airport on the nation’s East Coast. The images were taken by the commercial company Planet on Nov. 11 and Nov. 13, and shared by analysts at 38 North, a website devoted to studying North Korea.
“We’ve noticed a number of military aircraft lined up now at the airport over the last few days,” says Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center and the managing editor of 38 North. The build up includes fighters, helicopters, transports and attack aircraft.
“It’s very rare that we see any kind of traffic here,” she says.
The eclectic variety of aircraft parked wing-to-wing makes it unlikely they’re being used in a military operation or exercise, Town says. “It seems like they may be preparing for a site visit by Kim Jong Un, and possibly a private demonstration for him.”
Such a demonstration would also be a signal to other nations, including the U.S. — which North Korea knows is watching carefully with satellites. “It is signaling again frustration with the diplomatic process,” she says.
North Korea’s air force lags far behind its rivals such as the U.S. and South Korea, according to Joseph Dempsey, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They do have a reasonably large air force on paper, but it’s very dated.”
The newest airplanes are 30-40 years old, he says. Unlike nukes and missiles, North Korea simply cannot develop its own aircraft, he says.
Military air demonstrations have been held at Wonsan in the past, Dempsey says. From 2014 to 2017, North Korea’s combat aircraft were seen “bombing a bit of sea or bombing a target into the ground.”
Nevertheless, Dempsey says, this gathering looks like a significant fraction of North Korea’s active aircraft. “Looking at the previous years, this seems big,” he says.
For example, in the satellite images, it’s possible to spot 14 Su-25 aircraft, he notes. The entire air force is thought to have 34 such aircraft, and many might not even be fully operational.
Dempsey says that there was no such demonstration in 2018, the year of the first summit between President Trump and Kim in Singapore. During that period, North Korea dramatically decreased some of its military activities and performed demolitions at its nuclear test site in Punggye-ri.
A pilot poses with a Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft during the second day of the Wonsan Friendship Air Festival in Wonsan in Sept. 2016. North Korea’s air force is out-of-date, according to experts.
But the Singapore summit never led to ending sanctions on the North, and since a February summit in Hanoi also failed to produce a deal between the two leaders, North Korea has been hardening its rhetoric, and showing off its military hardware. Last month, it successfully tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile at Wonsan, a significant technical achievement that could eventually strengthen its nuclear arsenal.
The submarine test is just one of many tests of shorter-range systems, says Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Successful tests of short range rockets and missiles that are solid fueled and can be launched quickly in a conflict have also been conducted. “The North Koreans have been pretty busy on the missile front,” Lewis says.
North Korea has been frustrated with the lack of progress following the Hanoi talks. Kim has repeatedly warned of forging a “new way” in the coming year if the North and rival nations fail to reach an agreement.
The U.S. had hoped Pyongyang might come back to the negotiating table in December, but North Korean negotiators have reportedly rebuffed their U.S. counterparts. Town says she believes the fundamental problem is that Pyongyang wants top-level negotiations, while Washington is seeking a lower-key “working level” approach.
“We’re fundamentally in opposition here about how to move forward,” she says.
In a statement Wednesday at the North’s permanent mission to the United Nations, a spokesperson again condemned joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea and warned that time is running out. “The U.S. has to ponder over what it can do during the short last hour left,” it said.
Lewis says that assuming nothing changes between now and the end of the year, he expects Kim will move ahead with further provocations.
“I think we’re going to see some new fireworks,” he warns.