Three recently captured drones provide the first concrete evidence that North Korea is using unmanned aircraft to infiltrate South Korean airspace, including the skies over the capital, Seoul.
All three drones crashed after engine or fuel troubles, leading to their discovery. The first came down in Paju, near the North Korean border, on March 24. Another crashed on the island of Baengnyeong on March 31—the same day the two nations exchanged fire across their territorial waters. The dustup started after the North dropped 100 shells over its maritime border with thr South during a drill. The third drone crashed on April 6 in Jeongseon county, 80 miles inside South Korea.
The North’s state-controlled media has neither confirmed nor denied launching the drones.
North Korea has displayed large drone-like aircraft in military parades recently, and according to state media, leader Kim Jong Un watched a drone attack drill using a simulated South Korean target last year.
South Korea said the downed drones are crude, resembling cheap remote-control planes. Though only equipped with still cameras that cannot transmit images in real-time, they add to North Korea’s arsenal for oppression and militarism.
Painted sky-blue, the drones flew over Seoul’s presidential palace and other border areas for surveillance photography. South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok confirmed one drone took 193 photos of the country’s presidential residence and other undisclosed sites in Seoul and Paju. Another drone photographed Socheong and Daecheong, two islands located on the disputed western sea boundary.
More drones may have been launched and avoided detection because of their polycarbonate materials and small size. They likely cost only a few thousand dollars to build and measure four to six feet long.
But despite low-tech models seen so far, even an emerging drone program signals a threat that must be taken seriously. South Korea knows Pyongyang has been developing its program since the 1990s. Worries focus on a potential attack using biological or chemical weapons unleashed by drones. Half of South Korea’s population lives within three minutes’ flight time of the border’s Demilitarized Zone. Seoul itself is only 35 miles away.
The captured drones hold no comparison to the $208 million, long-range, U.S.-made Global Hawks, which South Korea plans to introduce soon to its military.
For Japan, the Korean Peninsula and the remote Senkaku Islands are both flashpoints building to its north and south. And as Japan’s ally, the United States will deploy Global Hawk surveillance drones there starting this month. The Global Hawks will step up surveillance around the Senkaku islands, administered by Japan but hotly contested by China and also Taiwan.
Last October, in the face of Chinese and North Korean military movements, the United States and Japan agreed to expand their defense alliance. Plans include adding a second early-warning radar system this year to provide better missile defense coverage in the event of a North Korean attack.
On a visit last week to Japan and China, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the United States will deploy two additional destroyers to Japan by 2017 to boost protection from North Korean ballistic missile threats. He said the ships are a response to North Korea’s “pattern of provocative and destabilizing actions,” which violate UN resolutions. They also would help protect the United States from such threats and would bring the total American warships in Japan to seven, underscoring U.S. efforts to focus on the Asia-Pacific region.
Hagel’s announcement came as tensions with North Korea spiked again: Pyongyang threatened to continue missile and nuclear tests and accused the United States of being “hell-bent on regime change.” It warned that any maneuvers with that intention would spark reprisals. North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Ri Tong Il, said his government “made it very clear we will carry out a new form of nuclear test.”