While waiting for North Korea to make up its mind about when, where, and how it’s “New and Improved!” nuclear demonstration will debut, North Korea observers have had a lot to keep them busy. There have been the intense artillery attacks on nothing, fighter jets scrambling to nowhere, ships bravely darting across invisible lines, and all manner of esoteric and elusive bits of military posturing in the ongoing grind of inter-Korean tensions. However, this season’s back and forth has been marked by something rather unusual — a form of military activity that actually is useful and not just an exercise in empty symbolism.
Last week, North Korea fired more than 500 rounds across the disputed maritime boundary with South Korea (called the Northern Limit Line) into the open ocean. Of the 500 rounds fired, about a fifth actually made it across the border. South Korea responded by putting 300 rounds across the border, into the water just off the North Korean coast. During this exchange, residents of Baengnyeong Island, near the border, were ordered to take shelter in case North Korea decided to spice things up by bombarding actual land targets.
About an hour after the barrage concluded, a crashed drone was discovered on the island, pretty close to the impact area of the North Korean barrage. Although North Korea claims that all this drone business is completely wack and not its handiwork, it’s pretty clearly North Korea’s doing. Sure, North Korea didn’t fill out the online registration for the drone, but short of having an “If Found, Please Return to DPRK” sticker on the inside, it’s pretty clearly North Korean. Alternatively, if it’s not North Korean, the only other reasonable option is that it’s from a North Korea in another dimension. Anyways, the drone itself is a pretty straightforward reconnaissance drone, with a nice Japanese Canon camera, and room for maybe 2.5 pounds of payload. The deployment of the drone suggests that the platform could be used for pre-strike reconnaissance, spotting artillery targets to help gunners adjust their aim, or battle damage assessment.
After this drone was found, the South Korean military disclosed that they had found another drone earlier, on March 24. After popping out the memory chip to see what kinds of photos the drone had taken, it turned out that the drone had been photographing, among other things, the Blue House (which is the bluer, more Korean version of the White House). Being unable to detect reconnaissance drones snapping pics in your airspace, in your capital, flying over the residence and office of your head of state is not going to get any members of the brass a gold star on their report cards. When a military is responsible for watching a DMZ, it is supposed to notice when aircraft go from one side to the other.
Once info about these two drones hit the news, a 53-year-old wild-ginseng digger called the police to let them know that he too had found a drone crashed into a mountaintop more than 80 miles from the DMZ — in October 2013! Apparently he took a peek at the images on the memory card, and saw some aerial photos of beaches, decided that he had perfectly good access to Google Earth, and wiped the card, repurposing it for his own use. On the plus side, authorities who checked the chip were treated to 170 photos of wild flowers and herbs; so, aesthetically, it wasn’t a complete loss.
With crashed drones popping up all over the countryside, some questions are rearing their heads. Wouldn’t it be imprudent to guess that these are the only three drones in the history of ever that North Korea has sent southbound? Isn’t it more likely that at least a few made their way back North? If so, how many North Korean drones have made it across the border? How long has North Korea been doing this? Does it matter if North Korea has, is, or will be sending drones over the DMZ? Will these flights lead to further escalation? Is North Korea under the control of secret lizard people who will subjugate us all?
Well, it’s probably not spectacularly dire. Certainly, the drones are minimally sophisticated and not especially stealthy, but they have proven their ability to successfully evade detection and cross the DMZ. The drones are pretty straightforward reconnaissance jobs, with a fairly small payload. The ones discovered thus far can’t even send back imagery in real time, although it may not be too hard to pull that off, considering what hobbyists are doing with DIY high-altitude balloons these days.
That said, it’s probably a bit foolish to be entirely dismissive of the drones, because they do actually have some level of military utility for North Korea (aside from the more familiar chest-thumping, parade, and international-incident-staging sorts of things that North Korea does with most of their kit).
Some commenters have been pretty dismissive of the North Korean drones, maybe because a weapons system isn’t really impressive until it costs a few hundred million dollars and has been run through the more cryptic parts of the acquisitions process. But pointing out that North Korean drones are a lot less capable than advanced Western systems sort of misses the point. Drones (at this stage) aren’t really head-to-head systems. If a drone is markedly better than another, it doesn’t eliminate the utility of the more primitive drone. It’s like having your first car: if you’re racing, a crummy ride is one thing. But if you’re getting your first car, a set of wheels, however junky, is a big jump up from walking. Since North Korea isn’t getting a whole lot of help from its non-existent fleet of advanced recon satellites, pretty much anything is a step up. It might not be much; however, it is a revolutionary, groundbreaking capability as far as the folks in Pyongyang are concerned, and one that can’t be completely dismissed.