It’s been a busy week on the Korean peninsula. After an exchange of artillery fire, and a scrambling of South Korean jets, most news focused on a couple North Korean drones that were downed in South Korean territory. One of the drones crashed on Baeknyeong Island on Monday, following the exchange of artillery fire between the North and the South. The other crashed in Paju, Gyeonggi Province some days earlier on March 24. The drones (like most North Korean military hardware) are unimpressive and appear to be incredibly rudimentary implementations of an unmanned surveillance aircraft solution. Still, many are regarding the fact that North Korea was able to penetrate South Korean airspace with drones as a new sort of threat. These drones are certainly a new threat and worth taking seriously, but they will likely not be (and should not be) the highest priority for South Korean military planning.
According to one Associated Press report, South Korean experts say the drones “underscore a potential new threat that must be taken seriously.” According to South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, North Korea has been working on remotely piloted aircraft systems since the early 1990s and the two downed drones that were uncovered this week in South Korea do not represent the cream of the crop in terms of the North’s actual capabilities. Indeed, reports suggest that the drones each carried consumer-grade Canon and Nikon digital-SLR cameras, available for purchase online for around $1000 each. In an attempt at stealth on a shoestring, both drones were painted over in a sky-blue pattern to allow them to blend in against blue skies as they photographed the ground below.
On the surface, the fact that North Korea was able to get two incredibly rudimentary aircraft, manned or unmanned, in the skies above Seoul, and successfully snap pictures of the South Korea President’s residence should be concerning. However, there are a few reasons that this incident should not spook South Koreans.
First, fears that North Korea could use drones equipped with biological and chemical agents, or indeed, conventional explosives, for a “kamikaze attack” as one analyst notes are overblown. Part of the reason South Korean aerial monitoring missed the drones initially is due to their size. Additionally, it’s possible that the drones were detected but written off as false positives, again due to their small size. For the North to successfully stage any sort of attack using a drone and still evade radar detection will turn out to be somewhat of a physical impossibility. These drones managed to fly precisely because their sole payload was a camera — no heavier than a couple kilograms. Explosives or chemical agents capable of doing any real damage to South Korea urban centers would necessitate a larger wingspan and heftier chassis. The North is certainly working on these sorts of drones but there is virtually no way that an aircraft of that magnitude could make it past South Korean defenses undetected. As Lee Hee Woo, a retired South Korea air force general notes, “They can carry at most a hand grenade.”
Second, while the presence of these drones in the skies above Seoul is concerning, the actual surveillance data poses a low security threat. To his credit, the South Korean defense minister recognizes this. He notes that “the drones do not pose serious security threat as they can only take photos similar to the quality of Google satellite imagery.” This begs the question of why the North saw it fit to fly these drones into South Korean territory at all. These drones were likely flown as a proof-of-concept operation. The concept they proved — that a small, rudimentary drone can penetrate South Korean air defense carrying a non-threatening payload — unfortunately is rather inutile for the North Korean military.
If anything, the message this episode should send to the South Korean defense community is that it might be worth investing in better air defense systems and detection capabilities — a message that seems to have been received loud and clear. In response to these drones making their way into the South, the ROK military has decided to invest in “advanced low-altitude surveillance radars and anti-aircraft guns to better detect small aircraft and shoot them down.” That’s a wise decision and preparedness can’t hurt.
The bigger lesson for the South here is that North Korea is looking into the operationalization of modern asymmetrical systems and is thinking outside of the box. Given its massively outdated conventional military hardware, this was somewhat inevitable and does have consequences. The drone that crashed at Baeknyeong Island was likely conducting reconnaissance around the time of the artillery exchange. This would indicate that the traditional intelligence superiority that the United States and South Korea have enjoyed over the North might be less pronounced than it once was. North Korea expert Andrei Lankov notes that before the North looked into these sorts of technologies it had “no alternative but to send agents to infiltrate South Korea” and those missions “were difficult, risky, and from time to time went badly wrong – resulting in unwanted tension.”
An unfortunate reality of contemporary discourse on military technology is that we use the term “drone” to refer to everything from Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, which costs some $222.7 million per unit and necessitates a staff of a couple hundred highly trained personnel to operate, to $300 drones available on Amazon. These North Korean units do fall on the “drone” spectrum, but they veer heavily towards the latter rather than the former. Ultimately, yes, this is a new sort of threat from the North but it’s an absolutely nascent one. The North’s artillery, ballistic missiles and nuclear program still pose the greatest strategic threat for South Korea.