15:42 GMT +3 hours26 May 2016
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Inside North Korea's Secret Drone Ops

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North Korea has been honing its drone system for over 25 years, developing advanced drones believed to be capable of both airstrikes and deep infiltration. Here's how they did it.

North Korea's latest drone incursion into South Korean airspace over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) again shed light on the country's extensive drone program, which could create a new wildcard in the two sides' 52-year standoff.

Drone incursions from the North have created doubts as to whether South Korea can defend its airspace. North Korea is believed to possess around 300 drones according to South Korean military figures, some of which are capable of carrying out "suicide" airstrikes as well as reconnaissance.

Alongside nuclear weapons and missiles possessed by or stationed on both sides, North Korean drones could provide Pyongyang with both artillery targeting intelligence and the ability to eliminate South Korean high-value targets without the use of more risky direct assassination.

How It All Began

According to defense researcher Joseph Bermudez, North Korea acquired its first unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from China between 1988 and 1990. The development began at around the same time as  South Korea's defense ministry announced that it sought to build a UAV fleet.

By late 1993, North Korea is said to have begun producing its own analogues of the Chinese Xian ASN-104 UAV, initially called the Panghyon ("Fender"). A later model based on the more advanced ASN-105, presumably called Panghyon-2 is also believed to be produced.

By 1994 North Korea gained access to the Syrian military's Tu-143 Reys reconnaissance UAVs, which are powered by a turbojet engine. North Korea is alleged to have weaponized the drone, making it capable of carrying nuclear or biological weapons.

The same year, North Korea bought 10 export variant Pchela-1T ("Bee") drones from Russia's Kulon Scientific Research Institute. The Pchela-1T was presumably exported as the Shmel-1 ("Bumblebee") base variant earlier developed by Yakovlev Design Bureau, and had television controls, but was incapable of flying at night.

North Korea also expressed interest in purchasing more Pchela drones during Kim Jong Il's visit to Russia in 2001. At around the same time, the institute developed the Pchela-1IK, which had infrared controls, making it capable of flying at night.

Zil-130 truck carrying a North Korean drone believed to be modeled on the US-made MQM-107D drone, at the military parade marking the 100th birthday of late North Korea founder Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. April 15, 2012.
© Sputnik/ Iliya Pitalev
Zil-130 truck carrying a North Korean drone believed to be modeled on the US-made MQM-107D drone, at the military parade marking the 100th birthday of late North Korea founder Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. April 15, 2012.

Active Deployment

In 2005, South Korean intelligence came to possess a detailed North Korean plan of action in case of war. The plans showed that North Korea would direct its military from deep underground bunkers, making decisions based on intelligence from spy satellites and UAVs.

At the time, South Korea reacted to the idea that the North would have sufficient UAVs with skepticism, but admitted that work in the direction was probably underway.

South Korea first learned of UAV use by the North in 2010, when it detected an unidentified UAV on the border over the Yellow Sea. The UAV was apparently evaluating North Korean artillery exercises and monitoring the reaction of a nearby South Korean unit. South Korea's military at the time believed the drone to be a Tu-143 or its derivative.

In February 2012, a military source told Yonhap News that North Korea was developing a strike drone based on the US-made MQM-107 Streaker drone, purchased from a Middle Eastern country, believed to be either Syria or Egypt. The drone was then shown during a North Korean military parade in March 2012 (seen above on a ZiL-130 truck chassis).

In 2013, stills on North Korean television showed the drones being used in a military exercise:

The stills showed three UAVs taking off, with some exploding in mid-air to destroy an aerial target, while others attack a target on a mountainside.

Modern Warfare

South Korea only rang the alarm bells in April 2014, when three "mini-UAVs" were found in South Korea, apparently sent in from North Korea. The UAVs were programmed with GPS coordinates to take photographs of strategic installations in South Korea, including the presidential administration in Seoul, and likely crashed after running out of fuel.

Examination of the drones showed them to be modifications of Chinese-made Sky-09 and UV10 drones, the use of which by North Korea was previously unknown to South Korean intelligence.

It was later found that the drone was previously seen in photographs of Kim Jong Un visiting an air force base in March 2013. The finding led South Korean officials to assume that multiple successful drone flights were already made over South Korea without being noticed.

South Korea deployed a radar system to detect low-flying drones after the discovery, believed to be operational in late 2015. South Korean forces failed to intercept the drones the first two times North Korean UAVs were detected flying over the DMZ by the system between August 22 and August 24, 2015.

The South Korean forces were more effective in deterring the drone in the latest incident on January 13. Ground troops fired warning shots with small arms, while audio systems sounded a warning to the other side of the DMZ, leading the drone to retreat back to North Korean territory.

Such a system is no guarantee, however, as it would require significant troop concentrations along every part of the DMZ. Other aspects of the North Korean drone program, such as launch sites and possible radar evasion capabilities remain unknown.

Related:
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Tags:
reconnaissance, drone, airstrike, Korean People's Army, Kim Jong Un, North Korea, South Korea
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  • pantovic2015
    Goodbye Samsung
  • puffinwillow
    dear leader is awesome
  • Ivan Zadorozhny
    South Korea punching above its weight.
  • Well why not!
  • tobi.gelando
    North Korea have the full right to defend his people ! since the Korea war the USA is provoking North Korea. Bravo to there leaders.
  • Mother Gorilla
    And yet despite all this military prowess North Korea seems to be responding to the policies of the South, sunshine when sunshine (1998-2007), and hardening when calls for de-nuclearisation are sounded, rather than being aggressive unilaterally...
  • Ivan Buckeye
    China and Russia benefit with North Korea having fighting ability. A buffer state is what North Korea really is...buffering the proximity of U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan. The fall of North Korea to the U.S. would be a bad omen for China and Russia's Far East, but it would be suicide for American influence in the region if North Korea is attacked. It's all about balance.
  • michael
    strange image for the headline though; several inconsistencies - looks a bit like cut and paste.
  • linebackerk
    north korea is the only legitimate government in korea. south korea is just a colony of the US. US controls south korea troops and south korea needs US permission to deploy their own troops. US is behind whatever south korea does. I would not put this north vs south. it is north korea vs US. yongsan, panmun, south korea 2005-2007.
  • linebackerk
    north korea is armed to teeth with ICBMs, SLBMs, now hydrogen bombs, EMPs, etc. also north korea maintains one of the largest submarine fleet in the world. I would give north korea 4 months to take south korea if war breaks out.

    There is nothing US can do because of north korean nukes. case in pont: US needs to use Japan for war supplies. It takes less than 5 minutes for north korean medium range nuclear missile to reach Japan. in addition, north korean ICBMs like KN-13 can reach continental US.
  • linebackerk
    north korea might not even need nukes. north korean MLRSs deployed along the DMZ now can cover almost half of south korea. the war depth of south korea is very shallow and it is about 250km.
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