03.01.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

A new step to the dangerous line: now with drones?

On December 26, 2022, there was an incident between North and South that some media outlets immediately hyped as “peninsula on the brink of war”: five North Korean drones crossed the inter-Korean border, with one of them flying over northern Seoul. This was the first such incident in five years.

Four downed drones were discovered in the spring and fall of 2014. They contained footage of the presidential administration and the military. On June 9, 2017, the North sent a camera-equipped drone across the border to take pictures of a US military base using the THAAD missile defense system, but it did not return and crashed in the north-eastern district of Inje in the south. Prior to that, drones flew into the South in 2014 and 2016.

ROK analysts estimate that the North has as many as 1,000 drones in service (both reconnaissance and kamikaze drones), with Seoul “remaining concerned that some North Korean drones could carry chemical and biological weapons for use in potential terrorist operations.”

As in 2017, small and likely unarmed drones up to 2 meters wide crossed the border this time. According to a South Korean pilot, the UAV he saw was similar to a drone that flew into the South in 2017.

According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), DPRK UAVs have been spotted in the border areas of Gyeonggi province.   Although initial reports spoke of a large group of “unidentified objects, presumed to be unmanned aerial vehicles”, some of these turned out to be birds.

One drone reached the northern part of Seoul after being in ROK airspace for three hours. After circling the northern part of the capital, the drone departed. However, its exact area of flight over Seoul is not specified. This may be due to the fact that the radars could not provide sustained surveillance of the object, occasionally losing sight of it. Reports that a drone may take pictures of the presidential administration building while flying over the Yongsan district have not yet been confirmed.

The other four were circling around Ganghwa Island to the west of the capital. The drones were clearly visible to the naked eye and were caught on camera by individuals, causing some excitement in the “civil media.” The exact routes of all five UAVs could not be traced due to their small size.

Later, another unidentified UAV was spotted near Seongmodo Island (Ganghwa County) at around 3 p.m..

The South Korean military responded to the DPRK by firing several warning shots and also informed North Korea of the violation of ROK airspace.  South Korea’s Ministry of Transport temporarily suspended flights at Gimpo and Incheon international airports. About 20 warplanes and helicopters were scrambled to intercept.

Nevertheless, no drone was shot down, as confirmed by the lack of new photos. All the Yonhap news reports on the incident were illustrated with photos of previous drones.  One that flew over Seoul returned to North Korea via the Paju area. The other four disappeared from radar and it is unclear whether they were shot down or fell because they ran out of fuel or power.

The ROK military gave two reasons for the failure.  First, the drones were small (less than 2 meters) and sky-blue in color, so it was difficult for fighter pilots to identify them with the naked eye and to shoot them down.  Second, the drones were flying low and there was a chance of damaging civilian facilities.  In the end, only about a hundred shots were fired from the helicopter’s 20mm auto-gun – in the direction of the radar-tracked trail, rather than aimed at the drone.

In response, the South sent its manned and unmanned aircraft to the North and the ROK border areas to conduct surveillance and other operations, including taking pictures of “key enemy military facilities.” They all returned home safely.

Now for the reaction to the events, since drone raids on each other’s territory clearly violate the 2018 inter-Korean military agreement on de-escalating tensions. “This is a clear act of provocation in which North Korea invaded our airspace,” ROK Major General Lee Seung-o said. Later, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff Kang Shin-chul formally apologized: “We feel sorry that although our military detected and tracked the drones, we failed to shoot them down.”

The Office of the President said Presidential National Security Advisor Kim Sung-han and other staff reacted immediately, but did not hold a meeting of the National Security Council over the drone flight.

ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol himself pledged on December 27 to strengthen the military’s surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, saying the infiltration of North Korean drones showed that South Korea’s military preparedness had been “severely lacking” for years.

This was a dig at Moon Jae-in, during whose reign there were no exercises against such drones. Yoon expressed regret over the fact that the National Assembly had cut the government’s proposed budget for drone operations by 50% for 2023 and promised to set up a military unit specializing in drones.

The opposition Democratic Party criticized Yoon for evading responsibility and shifting the blame to the previous administration, “making us question his qualification as commander in chief.” For example, former general and Democrat MP Kim Byung-joo criticized the Yoon administration for not holding a meeting of the National Security Council, accusing it of being nonchalant about people’s safety.

The United States reaffirmed its commitment to defending the ROK and said it was in close consultation with South Korean allies.

On December 27, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the ROK’s Armed Forces decided to conduct an air defense test. According to a committee spokesman, the air defense forces have been put on high alert.

In this situation, the author would like to draw attention to several points.

First, the fact that none of the drones were shot down is not just a demonstration of the ROK’s weak drone-fighting capabilities, but a general problem of dealing with such an atypical target, common in other regions as well.

Apologizing, Kang Shin-chul noted that the military has limitations in detecting and defeating small surveillance drones, while it is still capable of countering threats from larger strike drones and, as another spokesperson for the JCS, Colonel Lee Sung-jun, said, “there are considerable restrictions in detecting and identifying drones smaller than 3 meters”.

Supersonic jets fly too fast to track drones that reach speeds of around 100 kilometers per hour. In addition, their small size and power-to-weight ratio make it impossible to use standard guidance systems, and since drones can change speed and altitude, hitting them “the old-fashioned way with a scope” is not easy either.

After the infiltration of drones from the North in 2014, the Ministry of Defense procured a radar system from Israel, but the limited radar deployment and small size of the drones made them difficult to intercept.

However, it is unclear what the South Korean air defense forces, which possess Vulcan automatic anti-aircraft guns, were doing in the meantime. Their inaction is attributed by the military to a desire to prevent possible damage to civilian facilities and the population, but this is perceived by critics as a rather weak justification.

Defense experts contacted by the Korea Times said that unlike in the past, the military was able to detect the drones when they violated South Korean airspace and did the right thing by deciding not to use excessive force to destroy the drones, which flew over civilian populated areas. However, the military needs to improve the speed of its decision-making process to prevent drones from infiltrating deep into the country.

According to Shin Jong-woo, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, “it would be reasonable not to take the risk of damaging the lives of civilians or their property to destroy the small-size paper drones”.

Second, there will still be a spat between the ruling party and the opposition. Democrats will say that with his thoughtlessly harsh policies towards the DPRK, Yoon has driven the country to such direct provocations and, as the country’s leader, bears responsibility for all military failures; Conservatives will reply that the Moon administration has ruined military preparedness with its policy of appeasing the North, which is why drones are flying around like they are at home.

Third, the level of South Korean reaction is rather proportionate: the National Security Council did not meet (unlike the missile launches), the Ministry of Defense spoke out at a minimal level. In fact, in response to the North’s drone attack, the South simply conducted a similar raid and then engaged in a combat readiness check so that the North would not have it next time. This is quite important because there was no sign of the South’s actions inflaming the conflict.

Therefore, although the dangerous line has come one step closer, it is more of a minor incident that should be taken into account but not given undue significance.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.