Drones are used to deliver goods, as seen in drone delivery services offered by Wing, a company owned by Google’s parent Alphabet.
Using drones, we can install telecommunications cables in areas where it is difficult for people and equipment to enter due to landslides or land subsidence. In this way, mobile telecommunications facilities, which are national infrastructure, can be restored easily.
Drones are useful in disaster sites where it is difficult to access or carry out recovery work. They are also used for high-altitude photography, aerial spraying of pesticides and air quality measurement. We can’t help but wonder how North Korea is using drones.
Today, we’ll talk about North Korean drones with Professor Jeong Eun Chan at the National Institute for Unification Education.
North Korea calls Mt. Baekdu the “sacred place of revolution.” Last month, the North aired a documentary about the mountain, which is considered very special in the country.
The 43-minute video aired in October starts with the scene of the sunrise on Mt. Baekdu. It shows the mountain peaks including Hyangdo(향도) and Janggun(장군), Cheonji(천지) Lake on top of the mountain and trout living in the lake. The film also has the scene of leader Kim Jong-un showing his hair and clothes fluttering in the wind in front of the lake in 2015, saying that he is facing the fierce winds of Mt. Baekdu. North Korea would urge the people to uphold the spirit of facing the harsh winds of the mountain and achieve the goal of building a strong and prosperous socialist state. Featuring the theme of Mt. Baekdu, the sacred place of revolution, the propaganda film aims to deify the leader by promoting his achievements and the so-called Baekdu bloodline.
In North Korea, Mt. Baekdu has been used as a propaganda tool for promoting the Baekdu bloodline, which refers to a three-generation lineage of the nation’s leadership running from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un.
But the recent documentary is focused on Mt. Baekdu itself, not the top leaders. The country put a great deal of effort into filming the documentary, using a drone to capture the spectacular view of the mountain.
North Korea included the interview of a foreign tourist in the documentary titled “The Eight Sights of Mt. Baekdu,” reflecting that the film has the purpose of publicizing the mountain and attracting many more tourists. These days, North Korea is using drones a lot in video production.
North Korea has introduced drones in filming lately, with TV content becoming more diverse. Drone filming has increased significantly in broadcast programs, including TV news shows, as well as in military parades.
One of the most noticeable changes in the Kim Jong-un era is the propaganda method using drones. North Korea began to stress the importance of science and technology during the years of regime founder Kim Il-sung. Under the rule of current leader Kim Jong-un, the country has placed even greater emphasis on the need to develop the economy and strengthen the military by means of scientific and technological development. Drones are used to produce videos that show a change in the country in a dynamic way.
Nowadays, drones are the most commonly used filming equipment in North Korea.
A drone was also used to capture the scenery of Samjiyon City near Mt. Baekdu, which symbolizes the roots of the Baekdu bloodline. That is, North Korea used state-of-the-art filming equipment to show to the people that their country is developing well. North Korean media used drones in earnest at a military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the regime foundation in 2018. Around the time, the country also used drones for performing arts.
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of its foundation on September 9, 2018, North Korea staged a mass gymnastics show titled “Glorious Country.” When the performance reached its peak, drones formed the phrase “Glorious Country” in the sky in a dazzling drone show.
During the event celebrating the New Year, drones also formed a congratulatory phrase. While using drones as a new method for performances, North Korea has introduced them in agriculture as well.
In 2021, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television said that the country has introduced a scientific farming method of using drones in order to increase agricultural production. The TV showed the scenes of agricultural drones flying and workers adjusting the location of the drones using controllers. Judging from several hoses hanging around the drones, it is assumed that the drones were used for pest control work.
Since Kim Jong-un came to power, North Korea has consistently stressed science and technology. It has to show some results to the people, so it tries to air such scenes. But I wouldn’t say that drones are efficient in resolving the country’s chronic food shortage in a fundamental way. Basically, North Korea has to address many agricultural issues, including a shortage of fertilizer. But not all of the problems have been solved.
North Korea tries hard to build a self-reliant economy through science and technology. It is experimenting with drones for crop growth management and spraying of pesticides. Last month, the country drew attention with an agricultural drone that was produced using indigenous technology. In fact, North Korea mostly uses its drone technology for military purposes.
North Korea began to develop its Banghyun(방현) unmanned aerial vehicle series in the early 1990s. As a modified version of the Chinese D-4 drone system, the series include Banghyun-I and Banghyun-II. North Korea also developed a multi-purpose drone called “Durumi(두루미),” which can conduct both reconnaissance and attack missions. On the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday in April 2012, North Korea showed off a drone of its own making during a military parade. In 2013, the North test-launched a self-developed unmanned combat aerial vehicle. The following year, North Korean drones flew over major facilities in South Korea for reconnaissance purposes. During his New Year’s speech in 2014, leader Kim Jong-un once again stressed the importance of unmanned aerial vehicles in light of military development using scientific methods.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service believes that North Korea has about 500 drones of 20 different types, mostly small ones- from one to six meters in length.
North Korea started to develop military drones in the 20th century. The impoverished North may have concluded that a drone costing millions of won would be cost-effective, compared to a missile that requires billions of won. After taking power, leader Kim Jong-un chose a drone unit as the site for his first inspection of military training, indicating that he focused his efforts on drone development.
Drones comprise a major part in the military of the Kim Jong-un regime. During a military parade in July this year, North Korea showed a large number of new unmanned aerial vehicles.
North Korea unveiled two surveillance and attack drone models called “Saetbyul-4” and “Saetbyul-9,” respectively. They each appear to be almost identical to the U.S. military’s high-altitude, unmanned surveillance aircraft and its unmanned attack aircraft. The U.S. surveillance drone uses high-performance radar at an altitude of 20 kilometers to identify ground objects. The U.S. attack drone can rise to an altitude of up to 15 kilometers to approach the target before attacking. Professor Jeong now explains the technology level of the North Korean drones, which look like the U.S. high-tech drones.
It is hard to say that the drones North Korea sent to South Korea show the North’s technological prowess because they were based on Chinese drones. That is, they imitated Chinese styles for the most part.
As a matter of fact, South Korea is far superior to North Korea in terms of drone technology. North Korean drones’ payload, which refers to the weight a drone can carry, is extremely low and they cannot be controlled in real time. Even if converted to attack mode, the amount of bombs that can be loaded on the drone is limited. In terms of technological capabilities, North Korean drones have limitations.
The level of equipment and weapons mounted on North Korean drones is rather low, in terms of quality. However, North Korea’s drone power should not be underrated.
In December last year, five North Korean drones infiltrated the Seoul metropolitan area. One of them entered central Seoul along the Han River. Notably, North Korea has recently organized a drone unit under its Strategic Force.
North Korea would typically unveil offensive weapons in the past. In a shift from the previous practice, the country has revealed images of reconnaissance satellites recently. It means that the North is building a drone system for both reconnaissance and attack operations. North Korea has a goal of building an advanced weapons system by fulfilling five major tasks in the strategic arms sector. One of the tasks is to develop reconnaissance drones. The North seeks to use a weapon system designed to carry out both surveillance and attack missions as an important military resource. North Korea’s drone ambitions are becoming a source of security concerns in South Korea.
In 2021, Kim Jong-un cited the development of reconnaissance drones as one of the five major tasks in the defense field. North Korea has since tried to deploy drones quickly. It is difficult to detect and intercept drones, which poses a threat, as seen in the war between Russia and Ukraine. On a disturbing note, Russia presented drones to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a gift during his visit to Russia in September.
North Korea received explosive drones and a reconnaissance drone from Russia. At present, the North is making great use of science and technology in order to escape from international isolation and lay the groundwork for a self-reliant economy amid prolonged sanctions. Having the situation in mind, North Korea is likely to develop drones further and expand the scope of their use, with much emphasis placed on the military area. The country will likely inject the budget into technological development needed for building an attack and reconnaissance weapons system.
China is also working hard to develop drone technology. North Korea may imitate Chinese technology and also develop its own technology. I imagine North Korea will improve its drone performance down the road, compared to now.
Drones are controlled by radio waves or autonomous navigation devices. They can save people’s lives, but sometimes, they can also be threatening. North Korea has expanded the use of drones in many different areas lately. It seems necessary for South Korea to closely watch what choice North Korea will make and respond effectively to it.