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N Korea air show thumbs nose at sanctions

Statesman News Service |

Just weeks after carrying out its fifth nuclear test, North Korea put on an unprecedented civilian and military air force display on Saturday at the country’s first ever public aviation show.

The two-day Wonsan International Friendship Air Festival was held at the newly refurbished Kalma Airport — previously a military airfield — completed last year to boost tourism in the area around the eastern port city of Wonsan.

The festival was already scheduled before North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test on September 9, triggering international outrage and threats of still further sanctions against the deeply isolated nuclear-armed country.

The show kicked off with an aerial display by a US Hughes MD-500 military helicopter — one of a number acquired in the 1980s by using a third country to circumvent US export restrictions.

North Korea’s aviation industry was targeted by provisions in the UN Security Council resolution passed after its fourth nuclear test on January 6.

The provisions prevent member states selling or supplying North Korea with aviation fuel, aviation gasoline or naptha-type jet fuel or kerosene type jet fuel.

But a recent report by the Nautilus Institute for Security concluded that domestic supply of jet fuel was probably adequate to keep air force aircraft flying, especially given their very low annual exercise rate.

The Hughes helicopter was followed by an extended solo acrobatic display by the most advanced aircraft in the North Korean air force — an early-model Soviet built Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum which made several ear-splitting low passes over the crowd.

The rest of the air force fleet is largely comprised of antiquated Chinese built copies of the MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21. Experts say the low number of flying hours and training their pilots receive compounds the air force’s technical deficit compared to neighbouring South Korea.

North Korean airports are generally high security areas, but the Kalma tarmac and surrounding airfield were opened for the festival to several thousand local spectators, foreign media and several hundred slightly over-excited aviation enthusiasts from 20 countries.

Several foreign observers noted that the low passes by the MiG29 and later by a Sukhoi-25 fighter would have been forbidden at other international air festivals.

"You would never see that anywhere else in the world.

Regulations prevent any passes or manoeuvres over the crowd line," said Peter Terlouw a Dutch aviation photographer.