South Korea has scrambled aircraft and fired shots after five North Korean drones crossed into its territory for the first time since 2017, marking an escalation in already taut relations between the neighbours.
A South Korean official described Monday’s violation of the country’s airspace as a “clear act of provocation”. In response, South Korea has sent its own spy aircraft across the border over the North’s territory.
The drones were first detected in the skies over the north-western city of Gimpo at around 10:25 a.m. (01:25 GMT), South Korean officials said.
Reporting from the capital Seoul, Al Jazeera’s Eunice Kim said the drones appeared to have been “flying for several hours” and that “choppers and fighter jets were deployed in response, including a KA-1 light attack aircraft, that apparently crashed some 140 kilometres [87 miles] east of Seoul”.
A defence ministry official confirmed a South Korean KA-1 fighter jet was involved in an accident while flying to counter North Korea’s drones after departing its Wonju base in the country’s north. Its two pilots escaped before the crash and are now in the hospital.
One of the five North Korean drones flew near the South Korean capital, Seoul, and the others flew near the west coast.
Lee Seung-o, a South Korean official with the country’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told a media briefing that the military “operated assets to shoot down” the drones but did not state if they had been successful. Lee said South Korea initially fired “warning shots” when it first detected the drones.
Yonhap news agency later said South Korea’s military fired about 100 shots but failed to shoot any down. It is unclear whether the drones managed to fly back into the North’s territory.
South Korean reconnaissance aircraft flew into the North to take photographs in action corresponding to the North Korean drone flights, Lee said, suggesting the North Korean drones were also meant for spying.
Several commercial flights at Incheon and Gimpo airports “were grounded for about 50 minutes at the request of the South Korean military,” Kim says, adding that “it is unknown if they (the drones) are carrying any weapons”.
It is the first time North Korean drones have entered South Korean airspace since 2017 when a drone believed to be on a spy mission crashed and was found on a mountain near the border. South Korean officials estimate that North Korea has about 300 drones.
North Korea had also fired two short-range ballistic missiles on Friday after a joint air drill by South Korea and the United States a few days earlier.
Pyongyang has been flexing its military might in recent weeks, test-firing a barrage of missiles that have sparked concern in South Korea, Japan and their Western allies.