North Korea’s Wonsan Air Base has been undergoing major renovations and expansions, newly released imagery from Google Earth revealed. Renovation and expansion at the airport, located in Wonsan, a major east coast port and fifth-largest city in North Korea, began by July 4 of last year and was still in progress as of August 27. The expansion and renovation of the airport is part of an effort by North Korea in recent years to increase and expand economic activity and tourism in Wonsan and the surrounding areas. The expanded airport will be able to serve as a major transportation hub for the region.
This construction could represent the implementation of a $200 million plan from 2013 to overhaul Wonsan Air Base from being primarily a military air base into an international airport to support anticipated increases in tourism and economic activity in the area. The design plans for the airport’s renovation, which was to be done by Hong Kong investment company PLT, included two terminal hubs – likely one each for domestic and international flights – each of which were to be two stories high and able to accommodate six airliners at a time. Within a month of these plans first being revealed, however, the project was put on hold, reportedly due to “political instability issues.”
The airport’s existing runway is about 2,400 meters long and about 52 meters wide. Two new airstrips have been under construction since at least July. The area of the new large runway, northeast of the existing one, appears to be about 2,000 meters long and about 65 meters wide. Another strip has been built southwest of the existing main runway. This one is smaller at about 1,800 meters long and about 25 meters wide. Several taxiway connections were also being built to link the new strips with the existing runway and taxiways. Additionally, one or two new apron areas appear to have been added. One is adjacent to the southern end of the exiting runway, while the other is located on the west side of the new smaller strip and adjacent to an existing apron area. There are also many small buildings that have been built already – which may be temporary structures – and several larger buildings under construction on the western side of the airport.
The expansion of Wonsan Air Base appears to have started around the same time that construction of a new, smaller airfield took place nearby. This one is near the Kim family’s compound in Wonsan and about seven kilometers west of Wonsan Air Base, as reported in an analysis by Curtis Melvin at North Korean Economy Watch. The reason for the construction of this small airfield is most likely the amount of time Kim Jong Un spent on the east coast last year and may have built for use as an alternative to Wonsan Air Base during the renovations there. At least 14 percent of Kim’s appearances in 2014 were in east coast provinces, up from 6 percent in 2013 and 2 percent in 2012.
As the major port city for the southern portion of North Korea’s east coast and one of Korea’s largest natural harbors, Wonsan is of high strategic importance in both economically and militarily. In recent years, North Korea has been building and improving facilities in this region, increasing its significance further. The Masikryong Ski Resort – which opened December 31, 2013 – is about 18 km from Wonsan. North Korea built the ski resort in hopes of it becoming a source of revenue from tourism, projecting 5,000 visitors a day, 250 days a year. The majority of visitors to the ski resort will likely have to travel via Wonsan. In addition to the ski resort, last year North Korea renovated the Songdowon International Children’s Camp, and built the Songdowon Railway Station, the January 8 Fishery Station, and the Kalma Foodstuff Factory, all in or around Wonsan.
The Wonsan area and surrounding regions are also home to many military units, due its location in the southern part of the country, its economic significance, and role as a major transportation hub. North Korea has conducted numerous major military drills, including amphibious landing and defense exercises and artillery drills – many attended by Kim Jong Un. Many of the rocket and missile tests North Korea conducted in 2014 took place around Wonsan, some on the Kalma Peninsula, right next to Wonsan Air Base. The airport, together with the maritime port at Wonsan, would play an important in role in military logistics during large military exercises and any actual warfare. The new runways, aprons, and other facilities under construction will increase the airport’s capacity for shipping and staging military personnel, equipment and supplies.
The airport itself is home to at least one fighter squadron of the Korean People’s Army Air and Anti-Air Force. The squadron, based on imagery since 2010, has at least 26 MiG-21 fighters and eight MiG-17 fighters. It is not uncommon for North Korean fighter squadrons to have several MiG-17s for the purpose of conducting actual flight training without putting hours on the more valuable, relatively newer aircraft – in this case the MiG-21s. As recently as March 17, 24 MiG-21s and three MiG-17s were visible at the airfield. These have either been relocated or are being stored out of sight, possibly underground. Additionally, in July, during the course of the construction, four An-2 biplanes were parked on the apron, but their purpose at Wonsan at the time is unknown. If the military aircraft – or possibly the entire unit – has been relocated, their new location may be an airfield about 9 km southwest of Wonsan Air Base. The presence or absence of the aircraft at this base once construction started at Wonsan cannot be confirmed due to significant overcast at the site on imagery at that time.
That North Korea has begun such a renovation and expansion of Wonsan Air Base into a major airport shows that Pyongyang is committed to its plans to continue trying to increase economic activity and tourism in Wonsan and the surrounding region. It is unclear if and to what extent these plans will be successful. Time and further observation will show how much North Korea does with this region and how successful they are at achieving any economic successes and attracting tourism.
Featured image: Google Earth
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