S Korea and the runaway drone

‘Leninist’ N Korean drone programme not only exists but it is also remarkably advanced.

N Korea is working hard to develop long-range missiles and uranium-based nuclear devices, writes Lankov [AP]

On March 31 at 4pm, an unidentified flying object crashed on the far flung South Korean island of Baengnyeong. Upon closer examination, it was discovered that this was no flying saucer, but rather a drone (UAV or unmanned aerial vehicle). There were no identification marks on the hull, but study indicated that it was designed and produced in North Korea.

It was not the first North Korean UAV to crash in South Korea in recent weeks. Another drone crashed near the border city of Paju on March 24.

The South Korean military did due diligence and made some rather interesting discoveries. It turned out the first drone had flown over the city of Paju (a satellite city north of Seoul, just on the border with North Korea), before proceeding to fly over Seoul, where it got as far as the Blue House (the residence of the president), taking high-resolution pictures of important government and military installations. Its equipment functioned properly and the quality of its images was impressively high. Having completed its mission, it turned north, but crashed before it could make it over the border.

This is the first time that North Korean drones have been discovered inside South Korea. It has been known for some time that the North Korean government has been pursuing the development of drones. It was even reported in the North Korean media that Kim Jong-un had visited a drone research facility some time ago. Nevertheless, one could dismiss such claims as typical North Korean propaganda hype. The recent discovery, though, demonstrates that North Korea’s drone programme not only exists but is also remarkably advanced.

Assuming that North Korea has a sufficient number of drones, it might change the balance in intelligence capabilities between the two hostile Korean states.

Assuming that North Korea has a sufficient number of drones, it might change the balance in intelligence capabilities between the two hostile Korean states.

The US-South Korea alliance heavily relies on technical intelligence – above all, satellite pictures. This ensures that pretty much all significant military and industrial activity in North Korea is conducted under a watchful electronic eye.

Until recently, North Korea had no access to similar kinds of intelligence. Therefore, North Koreans had no alternative but to send agents to infiltrate South Korea. Such missions were difficult, risky, and from time to time went badly wrong – resulting in unwanted tension.

Many people still remember a North Korean submarine running ashore on such a mission back in 1996. Its crew and the recognisance team they were supposed to extract tried to escape through South Korean territory and were chased by the South Korean military and police. This led to numerous shoot-outs in which a number of people on both sides lost their lives – among the victims were some civilians, who were shot by the North Korean commandos for being unwanted witnesses.

Nonetheless, in spite of all the money spent and all the risks taken, the North Korean government could not get access to sufficiently reliable and up-to-date intelligence – until now, that is.

Bizarrely Leninist characteristic

The discovery of the North Korean drone programme – or rather that the programme is actually operational – is also a reminder of a bizarrely Leninist characteristic that North Korea has. While most of its economy is hopelessly outdated and moribund, it is quite capable of making remarkable progress in areas deemed to be politically and strategically vital.

The country’s missile and nuclear programmes are striking examples of this. It is worth remembering that North Korea has a per capita GDP little different from poor African countries, likely to be in the region of $1,000 at best. Nonetheless, it has successfully developed medium-range ballistic missiles and plutonium-based nuclear devices. It is also working hard to develop long-range missiles and uranium-based nuclear devices. It goes without saying that most countries in North Korea’s income bracket would struggle to manufacture good rifles, let alone nuclear devices and medium-range ballistic missiles.

This paradox is actually quite typical for regimes of the North Korean type. The Soviet Union, with its command-administrative economy, was able to maintain the world’s second most powerful military, even though its economy was, by any normal standards, in poor shape. The Soviet people had problems getting toilet paper, but the country was still able to produce packs of tanks, hoards of fighter jets and swarms of submarines.

Ironically, it was the centrally planned command economy that allowed the government to concentrate resources in the military-industrial complex. Thus the Soviet military successfully competed with the United States armed forces until the early 1980s.

However, such successes came at a price. The ability to keep up with the world leaders in a small number of select areas meant that the rest of the economy was run very inefficiently and wastefully. The average Soviet citizen was supposed to feel proud about the military might of his country, as well as the achievements of Soviet athletes and chess players. However, this pride was poor compensation for environmental degradation, low quality consumption goods, and the dismal state of the service industry. The Soviet missiles were more or less equal to those of the US, but washing machines and refrigerators were not. In the long run, the general inefficiency of the system sealed the fate of Leninist socialists.

Similarly, the North Korean command economy entered terminal decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s, just as the North Korean nuclear programme was beginning in earnest.

The outside world should not forget about this feature of the North Korean economy. Recently, a veteran military analyst from a major power told me that: “If there is something constant in North Korean watching, it is the constant tendency to underestimate technical capabilities in the military realm.” The discovery of this drone is a compelling confirmation of this tendency. It is important that we keep this in mind: North Korea is a serious military factor, and can create a lot of mess if it wants to, at least for such a poor and otherwise backward country.

Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.