Key Point: Although dated, North Korea's air defense system could be deadly to U.S. pilots.
If the Trump Administration chooses to intervene in North Korea, the White House may discover that Pyongyang is a more formidable adversary than many might expect.
Aside from the reclusive regime’s nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-un’s hermit kingdom boasts air defenses that are more advanced than many might realize. Moreover, Pyongyang has also taken steps to increase its resilience against any aerial onslaught that that United States might launch in the event of war. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has not forgotten the lessons of the Korean War–which technically has not yet ended.
“Between 1950 and 1953, the U.S. Air Force and Navy flattened North Korea, so the NORKS have had 65 years to think about how to make sure that does not happen again and dig lots of bomb proof shelters and tunnels,” retired Rear Adm. Mike McDevitt, a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses, told The National Interest.
But aside from hardening its facilities, Pyongyang fields more advanced air defenses than one might assume. While the overwhelming majority of North Korean air defenses are older Soviet systems, Pyongyang does field some surprisingly capable indigenous weapons.
“They have a mix of old Soviet SAMs [surface-to-air missiles], including the S-75, S-125, S-200 and Kvadrat, which are likely in more or less good condition,” Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics told The National Interest. “They used to produce the S-75 themselves—and those could have received some significant upgrades. In addition to them, since early the 2010s they are fielding an indigenous modern SAM system which is called KN-06 by South Korea and the U.S.”
It is not clear how many KN-06 SAM batteries Pyongyang has built, but the North Korean weapon is a surprisingly capable system that is similar to early model versions of the Russian-built S-300. “No one knows exactly how many such systems exist,” Kashin said. “The KN-06 has phased array radar and tracks via missile guidance system and maybe equivalent to the early S-300P versions but with greater range.”