After launching more than 90 cruise and ballistic missiles—including its newest, largest Hwasong-17 ICBM—in 2022, North Korea topped off the year by sending five basic and unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into South Korean airspace near Gangwha Island and on the outskirts of Seoul; one of them even entering the no-fly zone that protects the Yongsan Presidential Office.
The Ministry of National Defense (MND) failed to intercept any of the UAVs, although some flight paths were tracked. However, they are believed to have been similar in size and function to several North Korean UAVs that were detected between 2014 and 2017, including one recovered in Gangwon Province after a mechanical malfunction. These UAVs, which have an operational range of approximately 500 kilometers, may have been copied from Chinese models or indigenously developed and were presumably on an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission.
Although these UAVs are technically simple and pose little direct threat, the infiltration has had a notable political impact and begs the question of what constitutes an appropriate and proportional response. Furthermore, this incursion has revealed holes in the Republic of Korea’s (ROK or South Korea) military’s integrated air defense system and points to improvements needed in anti-UAV warfare capabilities.
North Korea’s UAV Intrusion and its Political Impact
North Korean UAVs and related capabilities pose a significant threat to the region, undermining the bilateral Comprehensive Military Agreement between the two Koreas signed in 2018. They also represent a legal breach of the Armistice Agreement, monitored by the United Nations Command (UNC). The UNC conducted an investigation into this incident and, on January 26, 2023, concluded that both the original North Korean UAV intrusion and South Korea’s response—sending UAVs into North Korean territory—violated the Armistice Agreement by crossing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which has divided the two Koreas since 1953.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, after being briefed about the infiltration, instructed the ROK military to send two or three times as many UAVs into North Korean airspace beyond the Military Demarcation Line. The opposition party has characterized this as an offensive move, and there has been heated debate about how to deal with future UAV incursions. Some have argued that North Korea’s use of UAVs for tactical ISR is understandable because it has no ISR satellites or advanced ISR aircraft. But the ROK’s tit-for-tat response is also likely to provoke further actions by North Korea, targeting the ROK military and/or United States Forces Korea (USFK).
ROK President Yoon has chastised his generals for failing to intercept the North Korean UAVs and also criticized his predecessor for not being better prepared, since these UAVs appear to be similar to models used in earlier incursions. The ROK’s military has long-distance surveillance assets and high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, both manned and unmanned. These complementary ISR platforms, such as Baedu, Geumgang, and Global Hawks are, however, not suitable for close monitoring of low altitudes of single UAVs or swarms of UAVs. The ROK’s air defense system is also fragmented between the services, and during the recent incursion, the ROK Army’s operational command failed to transmit information about North Korean UAVs to other commands.
As a result of the North’s recent moves, President Yoon has ordered the MND to accelerate the establishment of a specialist joint UAV unit, which is already a part of defense reform plans. He has also instructed the MND to expedite the development of anti-UAV weapons systems, although the new unit will likely initially depend on the Biho complex anti-air defense system. On December 29, 2022, ROK Armed Forces conducted several joint anti-UAV drills nationwide. This seems to have been essentially a political gesture intended to divert attention from the failure to adequately prepare for North Korean asymmetric threats such as UAVs and cyber attacks.
If North Korea deploys armed UAVs, the ROK military will face a new type and pattern of military threats. The ROK’s 2023-2027 Defense Mid-Term Plan, issued on December 28, 2022, urgently requires adjusting to include developing countermeasures against North Korean UAV attacks. The Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) architecture cannot be easily adapted to also effectively deal with small UAVs in terms of sensors and interceptors. On January 27, 2023, the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) stipulated its revised current operational concept (OPCON) of anti-small UAV doctrine, and the newly established Joint UAV Command is already looking into new measures to strengthen military-civil air defense coordination. In comparison, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated how central UAVs have become to modern warfare: the potential of widespread small-scale attacks on administrative, industrial and infrastructural targets, as well as on military command posts.
Certainly, North Korea is watching the war in Ukraine, and learning at least some of these lessons that reinforce the plans it set at the Eighth Party Congress in 2021 to further develop its UAV capabilities. More recently, Jane’s Defence Weekly (JDW) reported evidence that North Korea has acquired a new type of UAV with a fuselage length of eight meters and a wingspan of 18 meters. This closely resembles China’s CASC Rainbow CH-4 attack UAV, which is remarkably similar to the US GA MQ-9 Reaper. This kind of medium-altitude long-endurance UAV is likely capable of operating for 40 hours and could be used for attack purposes rather than ISR.
In response, the ROK should acquire or develop an anti-UAV defense system—akin to Israel’s Electric Eye—able to protect important military and governmental facilities throughout the ROK. However, this will require significant funding. Moreover, considerable changes will be needed to the ROK military’s defense strategies to account for potential UAV attacks.
JDW has also reported that North Korea might have more than 500 UAVs copied from Chinese and Russian designs. The ROK must be able to defend itself in the future against a North Korean UAV swarm flying at more than 150 km/h at an altitude of 3 km. Anti-UAV weapons under development, such as the Block-1 laser-based weapons and portable UAV jamming guns, are expected to be deployed by 2027. In addition, other non-traditional approaches, such as using trained hawks to take down smaller UAVs or projecting netting from guns and aircraft to disable or capture UAVs, are being considered. President Yoon has also urged the MND to speed up the ongoing development of stealthy Kaori-X UCAVs that will synchronize with the KF-21 Boramae fighter, which is also in development, under the Manned-Unmanned Team concept. Prototype delivery of the Kaori-X UCAS is scheduled for 2025.
The situation between the two Koreas may soon come to resemble the constant military confrontation between Israel and Palestine, which is a recurrent flashpoint for physical hostilities with consistent civilian casualties. Since 2018 there have been 17 North Korean violations of the Inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement, and the escalating danger of conflict breaking out between the two Korean militaries is clear. The ROK already conducted an ISR mission five kilometers into North Korean airspace by two RQ-101 Night Intruder UAVs on December 29, 2022, and additional back and forth in this manner is likely.
Beyond simply acquiring more UAVs, however, or even developing better anti-UAV measures, operational and tactical reforms are urgently needed to address the holes in the ROK air defense network.
Adjusting South Korea’s Military Strategy
So how should the ROK military respond to the changed landscape? Is it possible for the country to develop an effective counterstrategy to manage the threat from North Korean UAVs?
It is difficult to assess whether a UAV intrusion constitutes hostilities under the UNC Rules of Engagement. When UAVs are detected, it is extremely challenging to distinguish between ISR missions and the kind of lethal attacks that Russia is currently inflicting upon Ukraine. As such, articulating how to counter North Korean UAV intrusions will pose some legal and ethical dilemmas for the soon-to-be-established integrated Joint UAV Command that will be operationally responsible for executing combat operations against a North Korean UAV attack. It can also be difficult to distinguish between UAVs and manned aircraft, especially at night when the sound of the engines is all there is to go on. However, even if UAVs are correctly identified, North Korea may deny responsibility and, in turn, may represent any ROK response as being an unprovoked attack.
UAVs are strikingly asymmetric in terms of cost-effectiveness. They are much cheaper than manned aircraft or missiles, but anti-air defense countermeasures against UAV operations are disproportionately expensive. According to the New York Times, bringing down an Iranian-made Shahed 136 small UAV, nicknamed the flying scooter—because of the noise it makes—costs Ukraine seven times as much as it costs Russia to launch one. The problem is made worse by doubts about the practical operational efficacy of conceivable countermeasures, given the immense flexibility of UAVs.
Some analysts have argued that the ROK is overreacting to the December UAV intrusion and that the real intention behind it was to divert and absorb the ROK’s military capacities and budget to counter UAVs, when missiles and nuclear weapons remain the most serious North Korean threat. At the same time, Seoul cannot afford to simply ignore the North’s growing UAV capabilities and the complicated threat they pose. Balance must be found in trying to integrate air defense systems to deal with UAVs as well as more traditional weapons.
North Korean UAVs add to the country’s already rapidly advancing nuclear and missile programs. While last December’s incursion has drawn attention to the issue, basic UAVs are not the real problem. The UAVs reported by JDW pose a much greater danger in that they threaten both military and civilian targets, including the United States Forces Korea (USFK) at Camp Humphries in Pyeongtaek. Perhaps the USFK and the ROK military will need to resort to cyber and space operations to counter North Korean UAV attacks. Indeed, determining exactly how to deal with this evolving threat remains an urgent and unresolved challenge.
Park Tae-in and Michael Lee, ‘Yoon threatens to send drones deep into North Korea,’ Korea JoongAng Daily, January 10, 2023, 2.