South Korea Sends Drones to Kim Jong Un’s Airspace in Unprecedented Move

(Bloomberg) -- South Korea sent drones across the border into North Korea for the first time on Monday, an unprecedented tit-for-tat military move after Kim Jong Un’s regime dispatched five unmanned aerial vehicles into its air space.

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The exchange of drones, which briefly stopped flights from taking off at major airports near Seoul, came as Kim opened a major political meeting to set security, economic and political policy for the coming year, the official Korean Central News Agency reported Tuesday. He has spent the past year improving his atomic arsenal, showing no interest in returning to nuclear disarmament talks that have been stalled for three years.

Kim’s regime sent five drones across the border on Monday, the first time he has done so in more than five years. The first one crossed the border at 10:25 a.m. and returned after flying for about three hours. Four more were detected Monday afternoon and later vanished from radar, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

Yonhap News Agency said one may have come into the Seoul area to possibly take photos of the presidential office, but the Defense Ministry dismissed the claim. South Korea’s military said it responded to the drone incursion by scrambling fighter jets and military helicopters, with local media including Yonhap saying about 100 shots were fired at North Korean drones that broached its airspace near western coastal islands.

South Korea later deployed manned and unmanned reconnaissance assets to areas close to the border and into North Korea that conducted reconnaissance and photographed military facilities, the JCS said in a statement. The move is consistent with South Korea’s strategy over the past year to respond to North Korean provocations with similar maneuvers.

President Yoon Suk Yeol said the incursion showed the need for South Korea to bolster its defenses. “We were planning to establish a drone unit for surveillance and reconnaissance on North Korea’s major military facilities, but with what happened yesterday as an opportunity, we will expedite the establishment of the drone unit as much as possible,” he said at a cabinet meeting.

Kim has found space to ratchet up tensions as the US and its allies focus on Russia’s war in Ukraine. The moves increase the risks for the first major deadly clash in years, such as when North Korea bombarded the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong with artillery in 2010.

“Kim may not have sat across the table from the US president to barter pretenses of tension reduction for concessions, but he was still able to get away with a record number of weapons tests without more than a slap on the wrist,” said Soo Kim, a policy analyst with the Rand Corp. who previously worked at the Central Intelligence Agency.

“To his benefit, the Russia-Ukraine war and rising tensions with China have, in some ways, diverted our attention away from the North Korean weapons threat,” she said.

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Kim Jong Un has fired off a record 70 ballistic missiles so far this year as he has been modernizing his inventory to make the weapons easier to hide, quicker to deploy and more difficult to shoot down. He has tested missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons to US allies South Korea and Japan, as well as firing off intercontinental ballistic missiles with ranges to hit the American mainland. South Korea has said it’s expecting Kim to test a nuclear bomb in the near future.

North Korea on Nov. 18 test-fired an ICBM with Kim’s daughter on hand for the launch, marking her first official appearance in state media. The move signaled that there’s another generation ready to take over the Cold War’s last continuous family dynasty and it will depend on nuclear weapons for its survival.

Kim Jong Un has used year-end, multiday political events to make major speeches at their conclusion. In his opening comments, “he stressed the need to lay out more exciting and confident struggle policies based on valuable facts that achieved practical advance while persevering all difficulties,” KCNA said.

--With assistance from Sangmi Cha.

(Updates with comments from South Korean president, analyst.)

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