On Sunday, Harry Harris, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, announced the arrival of additional RQ-4 Global Hawk long-range surveillance drones to the country.
“Congratulations to the U.S.-ROK Security Cooperation teams on delivering Global Hawk to the ROK this week. A great day for ROKAF and the ironclad,” Harris said in a Twitter post, adding that the delivery marked a “A great day for ROKAF (Republic of Korea Air Force) and the ironclad #USROKAlliance.” Harris also posted a version of the tweet in Korean.
According to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, Harris’ decision to announce the delivery on Twitter has drawn controversy in Seoul, where the current government has been trying to avoid emphasizing certain sensitive military deliveries.
According to an anonymous South Korean military source cited by Yonhap, South Korea’s “basic stance is that we do not publicize such things for security reasons.” This source added that “Global Hawk is a key surveillance asset, though we understand high public interest in it.”
Deliveries like the RQ-4s may also draw North Korea’s ire. The current South Korean government has prioritized inter-Korean relations, particularly since the bilateral warming of ties in 2018, when South Korean President Moon Jae-in met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for two summit meetings.
Harris’ tweet announcing the RQ-4’s arrival can alternatively be seen as a celebration of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. U.S. President Donald J. Trump has given particular importance to the purchase of U.S. military hardware by allies.
Last year, Harris also tweeted about the delivery of F-35A Panther multirole stealth fighters to South Korea despite the government in Seoul treating the deliveries in a low-key manner. Earlier last year, North Korea had justified multiple ballistic missile tests on the pretext of opposing South Korea’s purchases of these fighters.
The United States and South Korea finalized a deal in December 2017 worth $657 million for the transfer of the surveillance drones and their associated spare parts and control equipment.
The first of four RQ-4 Global Hawk drones for South Korea arrived in December 2019 at Sacheon Air Base.
The RQ-4, manufactured by Northrop Grumman, is a high-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft, designed for surveillance and reconnaissance missions using a range of sensors, including high resolution synthetic aperture radar.
The RQ-4 is known for its ability to surveil large areas of terrain over a single flight, including areas as large as 100,000 square kilometers — roughly the size of South Korea itself.
On the Korean Peninsula, systems like the RQ-4 would play an important role in both peace and wartime. These drones would be capable of surveilling North Korean military movements from afar.