North Korea launched surveillance drones across the border into South Korean airspace on Monday, marking another spike in tension between the two countries amid an already turbulent year. This latest incursion marks the first air zone violation by a North Korean drone since 2017, when wreckage of one was found along the border on a mountain in Inje.
On Monday, North Korean forces launched five surveillance drones (unspecified type, wingspan under 2 meters) over the border. The drones were first spotted in the northeast border region at around 10:25 am local time, where four circled Ganghwa island while the fifth flew over the city of Gimpo as it made its way to the national capital. South Korean military forces responded by scrambling attack helicopters and fighter jets. South Korea’s Ministry of Defense confirmed that a KA-1 light attack aircraft crashed shortly after take off from an airbase in Wonju while trying to intercept the drones, however, both pilots were able to eject and there were no reported injuries on the ground. South Korean attack helicopters also opened fire on the drone over Seoul, but was unable to intercept it. After five hours, all North Korean drones returned over the border.
On Tuesday, President Yoon Suk-yeol expressed concerns over the military’s inability to react effectively to the drone incursion, stating during a cabinet meeting that “The incident showed a substantial lack of our military’s preparedness and training for the past several years and clearly confirmed the need for more intense readiness and training.”
“We have a plan to create a military drone unit tasked with monitoring key military facilities in North Korea. But we’ll advance the establishment of the drone unit as soon as possible because of yesterday’s incident,” Yoon announced, adding that “We’ll also introduce state-of-the art stealth drones and bolster our surveillance capability.”
Yoon also criticized former president Moon Jae-in, who he blamed for the military’s unpreparedness by saying “I think our people must have seen well how dangerous a policy relying on the North’s good faiths and [peace] agreements would be.”
The South Korean military also apologized to the public for their response, which has spurred security concerns. In a televised address to the nation, chief director of operation at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lt. Gen. Kang Shin Chul, acknowledged that South Korea lacks the capabilities to detect drones with wingspans under 3 meters in length, but assured that they have the means to intercept larger ones.
In response, South Korea also launched drones over North Korean airspace, an apparent first.
What type of drones does North Korea have in its arsenal?
North Korea often boasts about its unmanned aerial vehicle capabilities of various types, such as reconnaissance and attack platforms. Their drone stockpiles consist of a heterogeneous hodge podge of foreign supplied and domestically built models, of which many are copied from commercially available designs. For this part I am going to list a few:
North Korea obtained an unspecified number of Tu-143 Reys reconnaissance drones from Syria back in the 1990s. I have written about these before with their use in Ukraine, but if you are unaware of what these are, they are Soviet-era turbojet reconnaissance drones that were introduced in the mid 1970s.
The Tu-143 is launched via a jet-assisted take-off (JATO) booster and is powered by a TR3-117 turbojet, where its primary function is for low level reconnaissance missions. The drones saw most of their action in the 1980s with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Syrian involvement in the First Lebanon War. Like Ukraine, North Korea claims they have been converted into attack drones by loading them with explosives.
While not referred to by North Korea as such, this UAV closely resembles that of the Chinese SKY-09, which is commercially produced by Taiyuan Navigation Technologies. The platform is small with a wingspan less than 2 meters and can only carry basic camera equipment. While it remains unclear if they were purchased or domestically produced clones, these drones have been previously used by North Korea to infiltrate South Korean airspace in 2014.
Much like the drone above, this is another case of one being bought from China or being domestically cloned. The UV10 is produced by Microfly Engineering Technology. This platform was recovered from Inje back in 2017 and is said to be similar to the ones used Monday, however, standard UV10s do not have the flight duration or range to perform the way the ones on Monday did. This means that the ones used Monday could be an upgraded model or a different platform all together.
North Korea also uses Shmel-1 “Bumblebees,” which are export models of the Russian Pchela-1T “Bee” close-range reconnaissance UAV. Shmel-1s are considerably outdated, having been produced by the Soviet Union in the 1980s. These platforms are often used as target drones now.
North Korea has shown off a drone platform based on the United States MQM-107 Streaker drone, which is believed to have been obtained from Syria.
There are many drones that we do not know about as well. North Korea says it is continuously developing its unmanned capabilities for reconnaissance and attack purposes. While they may not be par with that of other, more developed militaries, they still pose a threat to South Korean military assets and civilian infrastructure. The latest incursion poses the threat of North Korean surveillance on targets well over the border and horizon.