Why would North Korea fly a UAV over the Blue House? Why else?

Arirang News has video of one of the suspected North Korean UAVs (unmanned air vehicles — we didn’t say “drone” in the Army) that crashed on Baekryeong Island.

The Baekryeong UAV has a conventional high aspect ratio wing, for greater stability and longer range. According to this report and this one, its engine was made in Japan, and other components were from China. This suggests that if the UAV really did come from North Korea, it’s an indigenous design.

The other UAV, which crashed near Paju City, tells a more interesting story. Arirang and the Joongang Ilbo suggest that it was on its way back from scouting higher-profile targets:

Images found on the camera showed that the drone had followed a route from central Seoul through the Gupabal area in northeastern Seoul to Paju. It took photos of major landmarks in central Seoul, including the Blue House and Gyeongbok Palace, which are close to each other. [Joongang Ilbo]

That’s a round trip of 50 miles or more, but after all, a man once flew a model airplane across the Atlantic Ocean, so it’s certainly possible. The image resolution was reportedly poor, possibly due to excessive vibration.

Via a commenter, Josh Marshall publishes imagery of the Paju UAV’s very different design and very similar paint scheme. Like most giant-scale model airplanes, it is powered by a one-cylinder, probably two-stroke piston engine with a large muffler sticking out the side (it would still be very loud). Unlike the Baekryeong UAV, it has a low aspect ratio wing. Low aspect ratio wings have more induced drag (caused by wingtip vortices), so they have shorter ranges. Their main advantage is their low takeoff and landing speeds, which means they can be launched by hand or catapult, and recovered in a net. No airfield would be required. An off-the-shelf digital camera is mounted in the fuselage.

Although North Korea is the prime suspect, all of this technology is commercially available and could have been built by almost any curious person with a budget of $2,000. The greatest technological challenge in UAV design is finding a way to control it for ranges over five miles. This could be done by long-range radio signal over an unused frequency, with a satellite-boosted signal, or by using GPS to navigate it to pre-set waypoints.

Marshall sneers at the design of these UAVs, but they aren’t designed to look scary or carry heavy payloads. But what are they designed to do? Superficially, one might guess that they’re designed to gather clear images and coordinates of potential targets. In this case, however, the imagery was reportedly of low quality, and in any event, one can find the precise coordinates of the Blue House on Google Maps or Google Earth (a skill that North Korea hadn’t quite mastered in 2012, when it threatened to shell the offices of South Korean newspapers, while actually giving the coordinates of the Australian Embassy and other errant targets).

That leaves the real purpose unexplained. If a curious citizen or eccentric hobbyist built it, then “just for the hell of it” or “because it’s there” are perfectly good answers. If the North Koreans built it, the only purpose I can think of would be to show the South Koreans exactly what potential targets the North Koreans are interested in, just two months before the next bi-election.

North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.

There are a lot of places in North Korea that I’ve always wanted to see in high resolution. A UAV seems like a great way to get that imagery. Sometimes the North Koreans give me such interesting ideas.

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Update: The Joongang Ilbo publishes two in-depth reports on this story, estimating that the UAV likely cost just under $10,000, reporting that it was GPS-guided, and also reporting that its imagery was of better quality than first reported.

A reader also wrote in to point out that North Korea has other, scarier-looking UAVs with actual scary warheads.

“The drone appeared to be a North Korean copy of a Raytheon MQM-107 Streaker target drone,” the report said. “North Korean press coverage of the event described the UAV as being capable of precision strikes by crashing into the target.”


  1. To be fair, Google Maps has Curtis Melvin’s house wrong, so lets hope the North doesn’t ever target him or they’ll end up taking out a second-hand car lot. Perhaps the incompetence here lies elsewhere!


  2. You must be referring to this:

    The sector of defence industry should manufacture larger numbers of modern military hardware of our own style that are light, unmanned, intelligent and of high precision to solidify the self-defence capabilities.

    Nice catch, sir. Your prize is my absolution and finding that your analysis is not crap.


  3. Two possible reasons for NK to make experimental drone flights into the ROK: 1) to test their own drone systems; not just the UAVs themselves but whatever radio or satellite control they may be using, the operators and so on and 2) to test the ROK’s ability to detect the UAVs and its response to them. Also, a drone would obviously be useful in doing damage assessment for artillery, which may explain the Baekryeong flight. Naturally, these flights could just be an intermediate step towards bigger, better or armed UAVs, or more extensive UAV missions.

    As to the broader, more political question “why drones?” I can think of two apparent patterns they may fit. First, consider the anti-“slander” offensive next to what New Focus said about the DPRK’s apparent intention (declared in the same New Year speech as the drone announcement) to stir up political agitation by its sympathisers in the ROK. Maybe a drone presence is meant to bolster the sense that the DPRK has a long arm and direct influence over life in the ROK?

    A second, probably incompatible, answer is that they’re preparing a big new provocation. Some old provocations like the test-a-bomb-and-a-missile cycle are losing some of their shock value; some new provocations like the Cheonan sinking are too dangerous to repeat now that clear lines have been drawn indicating a military response to any repetition; and pure bluff like the recent blustering about nuclear war won’t work so soon again (and didn’t even work well the last time). So a new, suprising and unexpected, outrage is called for.

    (Disclaimer: I don’t speak Korean and am not an expert on anything.)