By Ellen Kim, Sang Jun Lee & Victor Cha
What is the difference between a North Korean drone and a model airplane? Apparently, not too much, particularly if you like sky blue planes and Japanese digital cameras.
On March 24, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was found in Paju, a city just south of the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean peninsula. Only a week after the discovery, on March 31, another drone crashed on Baengnyeong Island located about 10 miles from North Korea, following a three-hour exchange of artillery rounds between North Korea and South Korea along their disputed maritime border, the Northern Limit Line (NLL), in the Yellow Sea. Both UAVs were equipped with digital cameras and had similar paint scheme – light blue with white cloud patterns – which is similar to the North Korean attack drones shown at a military parade commemorating Kim Il-Sung’s birthday in Pyongyang on April 2013.
The drone found in Paju carried a commercially sold Canon EOS-550D digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera with a wide-angle lens. It took a total of 193 photos during its flight; the drone was programmed to take one shot every eight seconds over Paju-Northern Seoul area and one shot per second over central Seoul. These images revealed that the UAV has followed the Route No.1 that connects Seoul to Paju, a key route for reaching Seoul from North Korea. The Paju drone also took photos of major landmarks in Seoul, including the Blue House and the president’s residential quarters. The other drone that crashed in Baengnyeong Island was equipped with a Nikon D800 DSLR camera and took some 50 photos of military installations in two – Socheong and Daecheong – of the South Korea’s five islands near the NLL. Neither of the two drones were remotely controlled, yet were rigged with pre-programmable aviation controllers that enabled them to fly designated flight paths and return to base on their own.
On April 3, the ROK Ministry of National Defense has tentatively concluded that the two drones are of suspected North Korean origin with a surveillance mission to spy on key South Korean military and government installations. The conclusion was made based on the lettering on the battery of the Paju UAV, finger prints of non-South Korean origins, and military parachute that was installed for landing. According to the ministry, the drones evaded the radar detection due to their small size and airframes that were made of nonmetallic parts. This immediately prompted the South Korean military to consider purchasing advanced low-altitude surveillance radar and anti-aircraft guns to augment its air defense posture and combat readiness against a new North Korean aerial threat.
The North Korean state media thus far has not released any comments. Presumably, they will want their cameras back (!).
Ms. Ellen Kim is assistant director and fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS. Mr. Sang Jun Lee is a research assistant with the Korea Chair. Dr. Victor D. Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at CSIS. Follow him on Twitter @vcgiants.
Ellen Kim is a fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS.