Intelligence experts are analysing reports that a North Korean fighter jet crash-landed in northern-eastern China on Tuesday afternoon, leading to speculation of a failed defection attempt by the plane’s pilot.
By Peter Foster, Beijing Published: 11:41AM BST 18 Aug 2010
An image posted on the internet by a Chinese citizen allegedly shows a North Korean aircraft that went down in Liaoning Province, ChinaPhoto: EPA
Photographs of the crash site posted on a microblog onChina’ssina.com, one of the country’s leading web portals, appeared to show the remains of a MiG-21 fighter with distinctiveNorth Koreanair force markings on its fuselage.
China’s official news agency, Xinhua, partially confirmed the incident in a one-sentence report but stated only that an aircraft of “unidentified nationality” had crashed in Lagu county, Liaoning Province on August 17, and “the case was under investigation”.
However Mike Gething, aviation analyst with IHS Janes, the specialist defence publisher, confirmed to The Telegraph that the picture showed a North Korea jet. “It is a MiG-21 'Fishbed’ and from the markings, it is North Korean,” he said.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing intelligence sources, also said the aircraft appeared to be a North Korean fighter jet, adding that the pilot had been killed.
“The pilot died on the spot,” Yonhap quoted the intelligence source as saying, adding that the pilot was the only person aboard the craft.
The report quoted a second source as saying the plane may have lost its direction while attempting to fly to Russia to escape from North Korea.
China has a repatriation pact with North Korea and frequently hands economic refugees back to Pyongyang, which could explain why the pilot decided to choose Russia as a destination, the report added.
North Korea, reeling under the impact of international sanctions following a series of illegal missile and nuclear tests, is facing chronic food shortages that have started to affect even senior officials and army staff, according to reports.
Yonhap added that the North Korean soldiers defecting from the North has increased in recent months as food shortages deepen further.
Pictures from the crash site approximately 155 miles inside Chinese territory showed the plane, still largely intact, had ploughed into a field of maize, with villagers and rescue workers apparently looking on.
The incident provoked a wave of excitable speculation among the Chinese, asking why the plane was apparently allowed to get so far into Chinese airspace and wondering whether it had crashed or been shot down.
Comments on Tiexue.net — a popular military fans site that translates as 'ironblood.net’ traded possible explanations.
“It is OK if it was shot down to the ground,” said one member, “But if it crashed, what is our Air Force doing be noted the aircraft was already 250km into our territory” Another speculated further. “Definitely it was flown by a defector! Possibility 1: it was forced down due to lack of oil or machinery breaks; possibility 2: it refused our contact and was shot down by our Air Force”.
Defence experts estimate that North Korea possess up to 120 later-variant MiG-21s — a now-ageing aircraft known as “Fishbed” to Nato forces and produced in large numbers between 1959 and 1985, becoming the most produced combat aircraft since the end of the Korean War.
According to an assessment by Jane’s, North Korean air force pilots manage to fly only 15-25 hours per year because of a shortage of aviation fuel. A MiG-21 was reported to have crashed in North Korea in April last year while on a reconnaissance mission.