North Korean air force training videos sparked ridicule and disbelief in the South Korean media in late January when footage emerged of DPRK pilots holding toy planes, walking around a large map painted on the ground, in front of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Further footage of the drill was released at the end of March by the DPRK’s TV news service KCTV, in their monthly roundup of Kim’s military activities at just before the 46-minute mark.
In the video North Korean pilots can briefly be seen “flying” the toy planes as they walk around, often in crouched positions. The pilots walk around in pairs, one holding a toy plane with other following closely behind and slightly to the side.
The footage of the first video was widely reported in South Korean media, with many commentators pouring scorn on the drills.
“It seems like a show, to take a video and show the poor statue of North Korean army. The actual drill (without filming) will be much poorer. It is curious how North Korean soldiers will conduct actual battle,” one presenter said on a Channel A News broadcast in South Korea.
“This scene puts my mind at ease,” another added.
One reason suggested for the rather unusual-looking drill was a shortage of kerosene and aviation fuel. The DPRK has no domestic oil production of its own, and is reliant on its neighbors for the majority of its oil products.
Previous NK News analysis of North Korea’s fuel imports indicates occasional large purchases of jet fuel, as opposed to a constant inflows.
“I think that the general answer is yes (there are fuel shortages), when we look at our energy balances in recent years, there’s not a lot of jet fuel to go around,” David Von Hippel, a senior associate at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability told NK News.
Despite reports in recent years of increasing flight time, a lack of spare parts and fuel shortages likely translate to North Korean pilots logging less hours than those of many other air forces.
NORTH KOREA FIRES BACK
This was not the line of reasoning employed however by a spokesperson of the Korean People’s Air Force (KPAF), when he fired back South Korean critics in early February.
Taking to the airwaves on the Pyongyang Broadcasting radio show, the spokesperson called the commentators “yokels, without basic knowledge”.
“The South Korean puppets are denouncing our way of air force training … it is (a) general way of training worldwide, in order to unite pilots’ actions,” the spokesperson said, adding the South Korean “bad words and biting remarks originated from a confrontational mind set (sic).”
While the spokesperson soon veered off, accusing the South of an assault on the dignity of Kim Jong Un, his umbrage in one regard appears well placed: The Korean People’s Air Force (KPAF) is not unique in conducting drills of this kind.
While different in some aspects, exercises that emphasize visualization are also employed by the U.S. Air Force (USAF), the most technically advanced in the world.
The goal of the practice, dubbed “chair flying,” is a form of mental rehearsal which can help improve performance in the real exercise. The technique is also widely used across numerous sporting disciplines.
“Most folks don’t do the ground walking like in the video, but there are actual studies that show that just imagining the activities you are going to do helps you perform them better,” Major Steve Lundquist, USAF (Ret), told NK News.
“I have heard the formation teams such as the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels also do this (and I have witnessed civilian formation flying teams practice in this manner),” he continued.
According to Lundquist, even the map used by the North Korean pilots in the first video could also be potentially helpful for pilots being graded on staying in a particular airspace.
NOT FOR DISPLAY
One key difference between the two versions of the drill is that while USAF pilots consider the exercise not for display, their North Korean counterparts in one video perform the drill in front of Kim Jong Un.
“In my personal experience, all my chair flying was done either in the privacy of my own home, or if I was getting ready for my formation checkride in pilot training … However, this is viewed as strictly a practice and visualization exercise. As far as I know, no one has ever done this as any sort of display for a teacher or VIP,” Lundquist told NK News.
While the pilots are filmed performing the drill in the footage released in late March, Kim Jong Un does not appear to be present. Instead he is seen later in the video watching a live flying exercise using a pair of binoculars.
The UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF)’s reaction to the drill however was more in line with that expressed by South Korean media.
“We do simulations and emulations to increase situational awareness … However ‘chair flying’ or doing any form of visualization with our eyes closed, no,” a spokesperson from the RAF told NK News.
According to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the KPAF also uses both these techniques. In recent visits to KPAF units, Kim Jong Un can be seen observing both a simulator, and an emulator, which are more generally akin to standard PC set ups running specialized software.
Both the featured simulators and emulators look rudimentary, with one Channel A News commentator calling the North Korean equipment akin to a “1980s-era video game machine.”
The aging nature of the facilities and training is also likely applicable to the KPAF as a whole. While it has an estimated 1,400 aircraft many of them are comparatively old.
“The KPAF is unable to buy new planes to replace the old ones currently in service. Thanks to the arms embargo and countries unwilling to sell planes to North Korea, the KPAF is still flying with planes it received in the fifties,” NK News contributors Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer wrote on their Oryx blog in 2013.
Featured image: KCTV