North Korea’s new weapon

Its drones have been found in South, rais­ing spy­ing con­cerns and height­en­ing ten­sions.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Matt Stiles Stiles is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

SEOUL — This month, a res­i­dent in a ru­ral prov­ince of South Korea found a small, sky-blue un­manned plane perched nose-up against a tree in a re­mote for­est.

The drone be­longed to the North Korean mil­i­tary and ap­par­ently had flown south for five hours, cap­tur­ing im­ages of a sen­si­tive new U.S. an­timis­sile sys­tem be­fore crash­ing, ac­cord­ing to South Korean au­thor­i­ties.

It lacked mis­siles or other weapons, un­like the larger, more ad­vanced mod­els used by U.S. forces in the Mid­dle East. But South Korean of­fi­cials and se­cu­rity ex­perts con­sider such flights un­law­ful in­cur­sions.

“It’s a mil­i­tary provo­ca­tion. It’s an agent spy­ing on a neigh­bor­ing coun­try’s mil­i­tary in­for­ma­tion,” Kim Dong-yub, a pro­fes­sor at Kyung­nam Univer­sity’s In­sti­tute for Far East­ern Stud­ies. “It’s the same as send­ing a spy.”

As world pow­ers fo­cus on North Korea’s emerg­ing nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties, its drone pro­gram is prompt­ing con­cerns about es­pi­onage and ag­gra­vat­ing al­ready tense re­la­tions with its south­ern neigh­bor.

The United Na­tions es­ti­mates that the reclu­sive state has as many as 300 drones, some of which can fly high and un­de­tected for hun­dreds of miles.

At least five have been dis­cov­ered in South Korea since 2014, putting the mil­i­tary on high alert for more. Last month, South Korean sol­diers along the bor­der fired 90 ma­chine gun rounds at a sus­pected drone be­fore con­clud­ing it was one of the bal­loons North Korea uses to drop pro­pa­ganda leaflets.

North Korea’s ca­pa­bil­ity and in­tent shouldn’t be a sur­prise. In 2012, the coun­try pa­raded sky-blue drones with other mil­i­tary sys­tems dur­ing an event com­mem­o­rat­ing the birth­day of Kim Il Sung, the na­tion’s late pa­tri­arch.

Mil­i­tary of­fi­cials in South Korea think the drone it dis­cov­ered most re­cently took off in early May from North Korea’s south­east­ern prov­ince of Kang­won. It passed over the highly se­cured bor­der di­vid­ing the two coun­tries — which tech­ni­cally are still at war — be­fore fly­ing south hun­dreds of miles.

Along the way, it took 550 pic­tures, in­clud­ing some of a former golf course in Seongju County that re­cently was con­verted to a mil­i­tary base hous­ing the Ter­mi­nal High Al­ti­tude Area De­fense sys­tem.

The U.S. mis­sile sys­tem, known as THAAD, is de­signed to stop the North from strik­ing south­ern parts of South Korea with midrange mis­siles. But the pow­er­ful radar has pro­voked ob­jec­tions from China, which re­tal­i­ated by block­ing Chi­nese tourists from South Korea, re­strict­ing ac­cess to South Korean TV pro­grams and clos­ing re­tail stores be­long­ing to the South Korean con­glom­er­ate Lotte Group, which pro­vided the golf course in a land swap with the govern­ment.

South Kore­ans have ex­pressed wor­ries that the sys­tem could ag­gra­vate re­gional ten­sions and that its radar could be a lo­cal health haz­ard. Last week­end, 3,000 peo­ple protested out­side the Amer­i­can Em­bassy in Seoul.

Af­ter spy­ing on the mis­sile sys­tem, the drone ap­par­ently was headed home when it crashed in Inje County, said Moon Sang­gyun, a De­fense Min­istry spokesman.

A res­i­dent re­ported the dis­cov­ery to the mil­i­tary, spark­ing wide­spread me­dia cov­er­age.

Kim Jong-seong, with the Agency for De­fense De­vel­op­ment, a govern­ment re­search group, said the most re­cent drone is sim­i­lar to one dis­cov­ered on South Korean soil three years ago.

That model’s wing­span was slightly wider, and it car­ried a com­mon 35-mm cam­era. Its en­gine, which may have failed and caused the crash, ap­pears to have been made in the Czech Repub­lic.

Other drones that have crashed in South Korea have run out of fuel, mal­func­tioned or veered off course. Their de­signs have var­ied, with some re­sem­bling sleek, sky-blue st­ingrays and oth­ers shaped like tiny tra­di­tional, sin­gle-en­gine air­craft. Most could fit on a din­ner ta­ble and re­sem­ble those used by hob­by­ists.

The tech­nol­ogy dis­cov­ered in the drones also prompts ques­tions about whether some coun­tries are flout­ing in­ter­na­tional arms em­bar­goes in place for North Korea. A U.N. panel of ex­perts re­cently in­ves­ti­gated North Korean drone flights and con­cluded that one prob­a­bly was made in China.

“The panel in­quired with China as to how the ve­hi­cle was trans­ferred to the Demo­cratic Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Korea, and has yet to re­ceive a re­ply,” said the re­port, re­fer­ring to North Korea by its for­mal name.

North Korea doesn’t have a mo­nop­oly on drones in the re­gion. The U.S. has 28,000 troops sta­tioned in bases across South Korea, and in March, South Korean of­fi­cials said they ex­pected the de­ploy­ment of U.S.-op­er­ated Gray Ea­gle drones to help re­gional se­cu­rity.

Those drones are roughly 28 feet long with a wing­span dou­ble that — far big­ger and far more so­phis­ti­cated than North Korea’s de­vices. But the smaller drones have one ad­van­tage: They are harder to de­tect with radar.

Un­like the world’s most ad­vanced drones, which trans­mit real-time im­agery, the one dis­cov­ered last month used pre-pro­grammed GPS co­or­di­nates to set its course, mak­ing it un­likely that any im­ages were trans­mit­ted back to North Korea, mil­i­tary of­fi­cials here said.

Such a drone, in the­ory, could carry an ex­plo­sive de­vice, although its range pre­sum­ably would be short­ened be­cause of a lim­ited fuel ca­pac­ity. Still, North Korea had ar­tillery, short­range mis­siles and other con­ven­tional meth­ods of strik­ing pop­u­la­tion cen­ters in South Korea. Seoul is roughly 35 miles from the bor­der.

The pri­mary con­cern re­mains spy­ing. Go My­ongHyun, a re­search fel­low at Asan In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies, said de­tect­ing and stop­ping the drones would re­quire an out­sized ef­fort.

“North Korea is us­ing an asym­met­ric strat­egy,” he said. “From our per­spec­tive, the drones are not very threat­en­ing, but from North Korea’s per­spec­tive, they have achieved their goal. It would cost us a lot to de­tect the small drones.”

Kim Young-woo, a law­maker who chairs the de­fense com­mit­tee in the South Korean Na­tional Assem­bly, re­cently called for a spe­cial task force to in­ves­ti­gate the is­sue.

“Our airspace has been in­fil­trated by North Korea,” he said.

What’s the point, the law­maker asked, of spend­ing roughly $35 bil­lion an­nu­ally on South Korean de­fense “when our radar can’t de­tect small drones?”

South Korean De­fense Min­istry

A DRONE found this month in a South Korean for­est be­longed to the North Korean mil­i­tary, South Korean au­thor­i­ties said. It ap­par­ently had cap­tured im­ages of a sen­si­tive new U.S. an­timis­sile sys­tem be­fore crash­ing.

Yonhap

DE­FENSE of­fi­cial Moon Sang-gyun said the drone ap­par­ently was headed home when it crashed.

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