Ah, North Korea. They’re a standup comedian’s dream! Operating under a ridiculous filial dictatorship with a ‘command’ economy, it owns an isolated population bereft of any means of modern communication and has a military dependent on Soviet equipment that was already redundant when the old version of the Evil Empire collapsed in 1990. Unable to sustain itself agriculturally, with food consumption for at least 84 percent of its citizenry described as “borderline or poor,” North Korea really has become every other nation’s insane cousin.
Consequently, when the English press posted photos of DIY-style North Korean über low-tech ‘kamikaze drones’, a lot of folks have been having a good belly laugh. These minimalist drones are brutally crude and can only fly a preprogrammed route. Simple and small, they are 6’10” in length, have a wingspan of less than 10 feet, a top speed of 75 miles per hour, a maximum flight duration of four hours, payloads of no more than 7 pounds, and can climb no higher, altitude-wise than 20,000 feet.
Yet North Korean drones provide the ‘mad’ regime with an option that is dirt-cheap to run and have proven to be mission effective. Tiny enough to often be mistakenly misidentified by both South Korean and American radar operators as birds, because they fly at altitudes and speeds so low that modern radars usually ignore them, they have all too often been dismissed as a sort of joke.
Yet South Korean military patrols have located wreckage from clandestine North Korean drones that have penetrated South Korean airspace before crashing at least four times. Indeed, one of them managed to surreptitiously wend its way into the grounds of the presidential palace in Seoul, the South Koreans concluded after examining photographic evidence. The logical question to ask then is, for every North Korean surveillance drone discovered in South Korea, surely many more returned to base without being detected? And although the four crashed drones were carrying camera equipment, they could very simply have been reconfigured as a platform for miniature weaponry, including small load nuclear or chemical weapons. Should the North Korean ever choose to launch hundreds of these drones simultaneously, the odds of being able to stop them are not very good.
Add this to the news that North Korea’s only two military allies in the world, the terrorist group Hamas and the Islamic State of Iran have been experimenting with miniature drones of their own and it’s easy to recognize a real threat.
Finally, Contrast this clandestine world of espionage and mini-maneuvers with the stratospheric budget of the U.S. military as it builds super unmanned weapons like big payload drones, many capable of converting to the stealth technology it is developing now. The threat potential of any military assailant is dependent upon its ability to outwit enemy air defenses by being invisible or going faster and higher. For most every other nation, it’s about expensive, advanced technology they have to get into deep debt to purchase. As of today, at least 76 countries now one own some form of UAV.
Although North Korea’s air force would stand no chance in combat with the powers that oppose it, its poverty ultimately makes it open in a unique way to innovation. North Korean media have shown the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, observing drone units during a military parade, declaring in a speech on the radio that he would release swarms of “super-precision drone planes” against South Korean targets. Indeed, as a sort of low-budget, low-tech guerrilla dictatorship, one can sort of admire the North Koreans for their ability to hang in there.