Checkpoint Asia

That Time North Korea Fought Israel

A squadron of North Korean MiG-21 fought in the Yom Kippur war on the Arab side

A statue of the muzzle and bayonet of an AK-47, given to Egypt by North Korea, honors the military partnership between the two countries

While the Yom Kippur War is a well known Cold War engagement between Soviet and Western aligned forces which took place in the midst of the Vietnam War, pitting the forces of a number of Arab states including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Algeria against their longstanding adversary Israel, the role played by personnel deployed from external powers remains less well known.

One party which played a significant role in the conflict, the beginnings of its extensive involvement in the Middle East to undermine the Western Bloc’s regional interests which continues to this day, was the Korean People’s Army (KPA) – the armed forces of North Korea.

Having waged an intensive and brutal war with the Untied States and its allies in the 1950s, where an estimated 20-30% of its population was lost primarily due to the American bombing campaign, North Korea well understood the importance of air superiority and set about rebuilding its air and air defence forces with the most capable Soviet made weapons systems available.

North Korean pilots and air defence crews were tasked not only with guarding the country’s airspace in the event of a future war with the Untied States, but also of contributing to the war efforts of a number of friendly countries – which they continue to do to this day.

North Korean pilots played a considerable role in the Vietnam War, and according to Korean sources downed several U.S. fighter jets over the country. As the air war over Vietnam neared its end in the early 1970s, the KPA Air Force dispatched pilots to Egypt to aid the Soviet aligned country’s own war effort.

North Korean pilots had been stationed to aid Egyptian forces in defending their airspace months before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, and according to the Egyptian Military’s Chief of Staff Saad Al Shazly Korean assistance provided critical assistance at a time of great need.

Recalling that personnel from the USSR had been flying approximately 30% of the Egyptian MiG-21 fleet and operating about 20% of the country’s surface to air missile batteries, he noted that following the departure of Soviet forces under the decree of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat the Egyptian Air Force had struggled with a significant shortage of trained MiG pilots. [This was a ruse, the Soviets did not leave because of a decree, but because they were no longer needed, also only one part left.]

Regarding North Korea’s role in solving this issue, the General stated in his memoirs:

“The solution occurred to me in March 1973, during the visit to Egypt of the Vice President of the Democratic (People’s) Republic of Korea (official name of North Korea.) On March 6, while escorting their Vice Minister of War, General Zang Song, on a tour of the Suez front, I asked if they could support us – and give their pilots useful combat training – by sending even a squadron of men.”

“I knew at that time that his country flew MiG-21s. After much political discussion, in April I went on an official visit to president Kim Il Sung to finalise the plan. My fascinating ten day tour of that extraordinary republic, an inspiring an example of what a small nation of the so called Third World can achieve with its own resources is, alas, rather outside the scope of this memoir, as is my stopover in Peking (former English name for Beijing.)”

Korean pilots – all highly experienced, many with more than 2,000 hours, arrived in Egypt in June and were operating by July. Israel or her ally ( the United States) soon monitored their communications, of course, and on August 15 announced their presence. To my regret, our leadership would never confirm it.

The Korean s were probably the smallest international military reinforcement in history: only 20 pilots, eight controllers, five interpreters, three administrative men, a political advisor, a doctor and a cook. Bu their effect was disproportionate.

They had two or three encounters with the Israelis in August and September and about the same number in the war. Their arrival was a heartwarming gesture. I mention the story here mainly to pay tribute to them and to apologise for the churlishness of our leadership in not also doing so.”

While Egyptian forces had long claimed that the MiG-21 was poorly suited to engage the F-4E, Israel’s prime air superiority fighter, and that the Soviet jet lacked the necessary survivability against the heavier American made platform, they were proven wrong not only by the successes of North Vietnamese pilots against the United States – but also by North Korean pilots operating against Israeli Phantoms over Egyptian airspace itself.

According to Israeli sources, reporting on an engagement between North Korean piloted MiGs and their own Phantoms, the Korean pilots demonstrated considerable skill and were effectively untouchable in close range engagements – taking full advantage of the MiG-21’s superior manoeuvrability to evade multiple Israeli strikes with impunity.

Whether North Korean pilots downed any Israeli fighters remains unknown, though reports indicate that no Koreans were shot down by Israeli jets. [Actually Israelis claim one victory.] A number of reports do indicate however that the poorly trained Egyptian surface to air missile (SAM) crews mistook returning Korean MIG-21 fighters for Israeli jets, and proceeded to fire upon them. This was a common error made by Egyptian SAM crews, one which cost the country a number of fighter jets.

North Korean pilots’ participation in the Yom Kippur War represented only the beginning of the country’s military involvement in the Middle East, nor the last time the country would aid Arab states at war with Israel.

While Egypt pivoted towards the Western Bloc in the war’s aftermath, abandoning the Soviet Union and its Arab allies, the country would pursue a number of joint weapons projects with North Korea and continues to import significant quantities of arms fro the country.

The Egyptian ballistic missile arsenal has North Korean origins, and the Korean Rodong-1 remains the country’s most capable platform in service today. North Korean assistance was also commissioned to construct a war museum in Egypt commemorating the Yom Kippur War, which was based heavily on the larger Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang commemorating the Korean War. North Korean forces have since the Yom Kippur War also formed close ties to Syria and Yemen, and the KPA is involved in wars against Western aligned forces in both countries. [Doubtful.]

Korean assistance has been key to upgrading Syria’s surface to air missile network, while special forces have reportedly been deployed for ground operations. KPA personnel were also reportedly involved in the Lebanon War in alongside their Syrian allies, and were later responsible for aiding the Lebanese militia Hezbollah to contract underground fortifications key to its military success agains Israel in 2006.

A number of key figures in Hezbollah’s leadership, including its leader Hassan Nasraallah, reportedly travelled to Korea for military training in the 1980s. Korean assistance has been key to strengthening the missile capabilities of Libya, Syria and Yemen, as well as Iran and Hezbollah, with all these parties relying heavily on a wide variety of the country’s missile designs until today.

The East Asian state has since the Yom Kippur War played a considerable role in supporting regional forces against the Western Bloc and their allies, and is set to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Source: Military Watch