North Korea’s 50 Year Fight With Israel Began With Korean MiG-21s Guarding Syria and Egypt

North Korea has been at war with the United States for almost entire history, with the Korean War that began in 1950 still technically ongoing and the country's military modernisation efforts directed almost solely at deterring and if necessary fighting a war with the U.S. Less well-known however has been the East Asian state's long conflict with one of Washington's most vital allies the state of Israel, and Korean involvement in every major Israeli war since the late 1960s in support of Arab parties opposing it. In light of Washington's considerable support for Israel at the time, this was likely seen in Pyongyang as a way of placing further pressure on the U.S. globally while strengthening ties to Middle Eastern states outside the western sphere influence, although ideological factors may also have had an influence. This fit into a wider trend of North Korea committing manpower to support countries across the world militarily fighting against Western interests, with notable other examples being North Vietnam against the United States and Angola against South Africa. North Korea's conflict with Israel began with support for the Syrian armed forces which culminated in Korean pilots flying Syrian fighter jets against Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. North Korea had also given money as aid to Egypt the previous decade in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez War, when Egypt had fought France, Britain and Israel simultaneously, to assist with recovery.

Korean personnel began to deploy to Egypt after the Six Day War, and reportedly manned the country extensive network of air defence sites and piloted its MiG-21 fighter jets. This was the same class of fighter which Korean pilots had flown against the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam, and formed the backbone of both the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Air Force and the Egyptian Air Force fighter fleets. Korean pilots had extensive experience operating MiG-21 is not only in Vietnam but also in Korea itself where they had frequently clashed with U.S. forces including during the capture of the warship USS Pueblo in 1968, the shootdown of a U.S. Navy EC-121M reconnaissance aircraft, and multiple clashes with American fighters. According to the Egyptian Military’s Chief of Staff Saad Al Shazly, Korean assistance proved critical 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 pilots. 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 - but 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.

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, give 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 lamented that the MiG-21 was poorly suited to engage U.S. built F-4E Phantom, which was Israel’s prime air superiority fighter, the fighter's performance over Vietnam, Korea, and in Korean hands over Egyptian airspace largely discredited this notion. 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 attacks. Whether North Korean pilots downed any Israeli fighters remains unknown, although reports indicate that no Koreans were shot down by Israeli jets. A number of reports do indicate, however, that Egyptian surface to air missile crews mistook returning Korean fighters for Israeli jets and fired on them, which was a common error on the Egyptian side during the war.

North Korean pilots’ participation in the Yom Kippur War represented the beginning of the country’s military involvement in the Middle East which saw its personnel commit to every major war effort opposing Israeli interests. While Egypt pivoted towards the Western Bloc in the war’s aftermath, abandoning the Soviet Union and its Arab allies, the country continue to purchase North Korean arms most notably including ballistic missiles. 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.  Syria re-emerged from the late 1970s as the primary recipient of Korean assistance, receiving Korean support to upgrade a wide range of hardware from surface to air missile systems to tanks. North Korea also later supported the construction of a ballistic missile factory in Syria, developing specialised classes of missile specifically for Syrian needs. Korean artillery specialists saw active combat against Israeli forces during the 1980s Lebanon War, and more recently in the 2010s served as advisers to Syrian units combating an Israeli, Turkish and Western backed insurgency. Korean special forces were also reportedly deployed for counterinsurgency operations in Syria at the time.

The other major Arab recipient of Korean support was the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which received training armaments and underground fortifications which played a key role in the organisation's military successes against Israel in 2006. A number of key figures in Hezbollah’s leadership, including its leader Hassan Nasrallah, reportedly received military training in Korea in the 1980s. Iran also emerged as a key recipient of Korean support in the 1980s, with its ballistic missile arsenal, fortifications and a range of other assets relying heavily on Korean technologies. North Korea has thus played a role in supporting both state and non-state actors opposing Israel for over half a century, which is likely primarily a result of Israel's close ties with the United States allowing Pyongyang to push against Washington's interests by placing pressure on its ally.

For further information on North Korean support for U.S. adversaries across the world and its long conflict with Israel, see the book by scholar A. B. Abrams Immovable Object: North Korea's 70 Years at War with American Power 

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