North Korea is building drones out of toy model plane parts

Two drones that crashed into South Korea, just south of the DMZ, at the end of last month are being analysed for an idea of how advanced North Korea's drone program is.

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Two North Korean drones have crashed in South Korea in the wake of the artillery rounds the two nations (which are still technically at war) exchanged last month. Curiously, they appear to be cobbled together from off-the-shelf model aeroplane components.

It’s a sign of the spread of drones as the defining warfare tactic of our times that even the Democratic Peoples’ Republic - a regime that is only kept alive thanks to the largesse of the Chinese Communist Party, which does just enough to prevent the transformation of 24 million Koreans from merely immiserated to refugees - is investing in them, and deploying them during skirmishes.

That said, they are necessarily limited by the quality of components that North Korea’s military can get its hands on, and as such they make use of components that are not exactly state-of-the-art. The first drone fell just on the other side of the DMZ between the two countries on 24 March, while the second drone fell on Baengnyeong island, also near the DMZ, on 31 March. They’re both squat little things with propellers, batteries and cameras.

Neither of them are the same as the drones that were seen paraded around in Pyongyang last July:

(Photo: Getty Images)

It’s believed that those drones were developed from a Raytheon MQM-107 Streaker drone, which North Korean bought from Syria before the civil war there. They’re effectively kamikaze drones, filled with explosives and flown-by-wire into targets. By comparison, the two downed drones look like toys, and were clearly designed for surveillance of military installations near the DMZ. (All of the drones share a sky-blue colour scheme, of course, as befits something that wants to hide in the sky.)

As North and South Korea are both still at war with each other, there are frequent moments of tension as something - an artillery round, a spy, a ship - crosses the DMZ, threatening the cause a proper war. The use of drones by the North is likely an extension of this tactic of getting attention. Excursions across the border by jet fighters are unknown in this century, but the removal of human pilots from the equation may make drone flights a viable new tactic as it seems less serious than flying an actual plane over, even if the end result (say, photos of the South Korean president's house) is the same.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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