SEOUL--A recent string of crashes confirmed in South Korea of drones that likely originated from North Korea is raising concerns among officials here, as Seoul apparently has no way of detecting the infiltration of small, unmanned aircraft into its airspace.
The apparent long-range capability revealed in the latest confirmed drone crash, identified as such on April 6, was received with particularly acute alarm. It suggests Pyongyang could acquire the ability to attack the presidential palace in Seoul, U.S. military installations in South Korea, and even one of the country's nuclear power plants.
Officials on April 6 confirmed that a downed aircraft, found last October in the mountains in the northeastern city of Samcheok, represented the third discovery of a drone that was likely made in North Korea.
Equipped with a camera manufactured by Japan's Canon Inc., the aerial vehicle is believed to have gone down during flight along a predetermined route on a reconnaissance mission.
The crash site was located at a linear distance of 130 kilometers from the Demilitarized Zone. The aircraft's round-trip capability of at least 260 km from and to the North Korean border is sufficient to reach not only the Seoul metropolitan area but also U.S. bases in Pyeongtaek and Osan, both south of the capital.
The Ulchin nuclear power plant is about 50 km south of the crash site. A drone could be used to wage a terrorist attack on the nuclear facility in Uljin if it acquires the capability to carry a bomb on board.
The Samcheok drone resembles another unmanned plane that crash-landed and was discovered March 24 in the western city of Paju. Not only are they similar in size and shape, but they both carry a Canon camera.
The Paju drone is known to have taken an aerial shot of the presidential Blue House in Seoul. The aircraft did not have the capability to transmit images during flight and was designed to have its photos be retrieved only upon return.
"The current technological levels are not much different from those of planes made and flown by amateurs," said Yang Uk, a senior researcher with the Korea Defense and Security Forum in Seoul. "It appears unlikely they are usable in weapons of mass destruction."
However, Yang, who is well-versed in affairs of the North Korean military, added, "It would be possible, even at the current stage, to mount a 10-20 kilogram bomb on a drone to attack a specific building."
South Korean President Park Geun-hye did not conceal her dissatisfaction with the military's response during a meeting with her senior secretaries at the Blue House on April 7.
"Given the complete failure on the part of military authorities to detect the situation, I believe there are problems with our air defense network and our surface reconnaissance system," Park said, while ordering measures to be worked out promptly against trespassing drones.
The Ministry of National Defense also convened an emergency meeting of senior commanders from all branches of the military on the same day, where Kim Kwan-jin, the defense minister, emphasized his determination to strengthen the country's monitoring and interception capabilities.
"(The drone technology) could be upgraded for use in terrorism and other attacks," Kim cautioned.
While Seoul plans to introduce a radar system that can detect small drones, deploying such a system to cover all areas along the DMZ would take time and be costly.
In the meantime, Pyongyang has denied involvement in the string of drone crashes.
The reports on the drones represent "ridiculous maneuvers" to divert attention from other problems, a spokesperson for North Korea's National Academy of Defense Sciences said April 7.
But it is believed North Korea has been developing the pilotless planes for several years.
"Our capability to strike any enemy object with precision has been verified," the Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang's mouthpiece, quoted Kim Jong Un, the country's leader, as saying in March 2013 when he toured and gave guidance to training exercises on attacks using drones.
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