North Korean Drone Entered No-Fly Zone Over President’s Office In Seoul

A North Korean drone last week entered a no-fly zone around the office of the South Korean president, military officials in Seoul have confirmed. The North Korean unmanned aerial vehicle was one of five that crossed the border on December 26, in the first incident of its kind in five years, which you can read about in our previous coverage here. While various South Korean military aircraft were scrambled to intercept the drones, none were shot down, leading to growing criticism about the ability of Seoul’s air defenses to tackle these kinds of threats.

The South Korean military today revealed that one of those North Korean drones penetrated as far as a no-fly zone with a 2.3-mile radius that exists around the presidential office in the capital, Seoul. According to reports, the drone, type undisclosed, “briefly” violated the northern part of the no-fly zone, also known as zone P-73.

The presidential office in Seoul, also known as the Yongsan Presidential Office. The office occupies the building formerly used as the headquarters of the defense ministry. Photo by KIM Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

This contradicts previous claims from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), which had denied that such an incident happened.

The JCS now admit that their position has changed, based on further analysis of the situation and the military’s readiness posture. However, the JCS also says that the drone didn’t directly overfly the office of President Yoon Suk Yeol, in Seoul’s Yongsan district.

A TV screen shows footage of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s New Year’s address during a news program at the Yongsan Railway Station in Seoul. Photo by Kim Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

An incursion by several “unknown objects” on December 26 was detected by the South Korean military before 10:30 A.M. Seoul time.

“The vehicles flew across the Military Demarcation Line separating the two Koreas and were spotted flying in those areas in Gimpo, Ganghwa Island, and Paju, leading to [the] temporary suspensions of civilian flights,” according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

The JCS confirmed the same day that one of the five drones had traveled as far as the northern part of the South Korean capital region — this presumably being the one that got within close proximity of the presidential office.

The location of the presidential office in central Seoul. Google Earth

In response, the South Korean military scrambled fighter jets, turboprop light attack aircraft, and attack helicopters and fired “warning shots,” according to AP. “The attack helicopters fired a combined 100 rounds, but it wasn’t immediately known if the North Korean drones were shot down. There were no immediate reports of civilian damage on the ground in South Korea, according to the Defense Ministry.”

Republic of Korea Air Force pilots and maintainers race to launch an F-15K Slam Eagle fighter jet from a shelter at an airbase in the southern city of Daegu. WON DAI-YEON/AFP via Getty Images

One of the KA-1 turboprop light attack aircraft that was scrambled in response was lost in a crash on takeoff, with both crew members ejecting safely.

The ability of a handful of likely fairly small North Korean drones to cause havoc amid the South Korean military is clearly a cause for some alarm, especially bearing in mind the current levels of tension on the peninsula. At this stage, however, we know little about the types of drones used or their capabilities.

The wreckage of a crashed North Korean drone seen on a mountain in Samcheok, South Korea, back April 2014. This was one of three such drones found in South Korea around that period. Photo by Handout/South Korean Defence Ministry via Getty Images

“Given the distance, altitude, and the enemy’s capabilities, we believe it was not able to take photos at that time,” an unnamed South Korean military official told Yonhap.

However, Yoo Sang-bum, a member of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee, has said that, even without a direct overflight, it’s possible that the drone that penetrated into Seoul could have been used for surveillance of the presidential compound, which also includes the JCS headquarters.

Perhaps more alarming is the possibility that, in different circumstances, the drone could also have been used to carry explosives or another kind of lethal payload. Yoo also noted that North Korea does have ‘kamikaze drones’ of the kind that transport a warhead as part of a one-way mission. The idea of a strike launched by one of the Koreas to ‘decapitate’ the enemy regime is already built into war planning and drones have in the past been used to attempt to assassinate world leaders, as you can read about here.

Video showing a drone-launched assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in the capital of Caracas in 2018:

“Our military will thoroughly and resolutely respond to this kind of North Korean provocation,” Maj. Gen. Lee Seung-o, director of operations at the South Korean JCS, told reporters at the time of the incident.

These words now ring especially hollow given today’s disclosure.

The day after the drone incursion, President Yoon slammed the military for its failure to bring down any of the drones.

A South Korean soldier uses an anti-drone gun during an anti-terror drill as part of the joint South Korea-U.S. Ulchi Freedom Shield military exercises at Seoul Metro headquarters in Seoul, August 2022. Photo by Kim Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

“The incident showed a substantial lack of our military’s preparedness and training for the past several years, and clearly confirmed the need for more intense readiness and training,” Yoon said at a cabinet meeting.

He also called for an acceleration of work to establish a specialist military counter-drone unit, with a particular focus on smaller UAVs.

In his New Year’s address, President Yoon also called upon military commanders to punish any further North Korean provocations without fail with a “firm determination not to avoid going to war.”

The South Korean military, too, has recently announced its plans to invest $441 million over the next five years to improve its anti-drone capabilities, including developing airborne laser weapons and signal jammers. In the meantime, the armed forces have stepped up training against drone threats, with reports of a live-fire drill today that involved some 50 aircraft, including KA-1s and MD500 helicopters, as well as soldiers armed with anti-drone jammer guns.

A KA-1 turboprop light attack aircraft, used by the Republic of Korea Air Force. KAI

The North Korean drone threat is by no means new and South Korean officials are already well aware of the potential scale of UAV operations that its adversary could launch.

According to Yoo Sang-bum of the parliamentary intelligence committee, North Korea operates around 500 drones of some 20 different types, ranging in size from around 3-20 feet.

“A movement of developing medium- and large-sized drones for long-distance reconnaissance has been detected but it appears to be at an early stage and securing technologies such as high-performance detection sensors would be key,” Yoo said, in a report from Reuters.

As well as the mainly small and crude reconnaissance drones that are known to make up the bulk of the North’s UAV arsenal, the country also does have access to larger types, which would be able to carry more significant payloads and offer greater performance all-round. There is also evidence that North Korea has worked to clone Chinese designs, which opens up the possibility of it fielding far more capable designs, including those using ‘man-in-the-loop’ guidance and advanced sensors.

In the wake of the December 26 incursion, however, it seems likely that smaller and less complex drones are equally — if not more of — a headache for South Korea’s military. Soon after the incursion, one South Korean official compared the problem of downing a small drone to “catch[ing] a fly with cannon balls.”

The difficulty of tackling drones like this, whether weaponized or otherwise, is something we have explored on multiple occasions in the past, including in the context of various Israeli operations, the Houthi-Saudi Arabian conflict, and the war in Ukraine, where Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones and Ukraine’s own weaponized UAVs have played a prominent role. With their small radar and infrared signatures, as well as their low-altitude flight profiles, and especially their slow speed, detecting and then successfully engaging these kinds of targets is far from easy. This is especially true in the Korean example, which appears to involve drones flying on a pre-planned route and producing no radio-frequency emissions. We have highlighted this reality for years and the truth is the best air defense systems on the planet will normally have a hard time defeating this kind of threat.

South Korean soldiers operating a Chun Ma short-range air defense missile system during an anti-drone drill on December 29, 2022, in Yangju, South Korea. Photo by South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images

The extent of the diplomatic fallout of the drone incursion is unclear but is only likely to be exacerbated by the disclosure of one of Pyongyang’s UAVs flying in close proximity to President Yoon’s office.

Already, Yoon had threatened to suspend a 2018 inter-Korean military pact if the North violates its airspace again. This pact covered calls for an end to “all hostile acts,” establishing a no-fly zone around the joint border and removing landmines and guard posts from the Demilitarized Zone.

A United Nations Command) soldier (left) and South Korean troops walk in the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone in the truce village of Panmunjom on October 4, 2022. Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

At a time of already heightened tensions between North and South Korea, Pyongyang’s demonstration of its ability to operate drones apparently unhindered in South Korean airspace is highly notable.

Drones would almost certainly be an important part of the opening stages of any kind of conflict between the two countries, and the December 26 incident provides just a small indication of the kind of overwhelming and layered chaos that the North could unleash, even without necessarily having access to the most advanced kinds of military technologies.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his daughter tour a warehouse full of Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, in an official photo released by the country over the New Year. KCNA

While ballistic missile launches from North Korea have become fairly routine in the last year or so, and have also become more provocative, it shouldn’t be at all surprising if we now see Pyongyang also use drones as a means of signaling its intent and its willingness to test the South’s boundaries in ‘gray zone’ operations that fall short of open conflict. At the same time, it seems inevitable that North Korea is also keeping a close eye on drone operations in Ukraine, especially the effects of the Iranian-supplied Shaheds, and will likely pursue a similar capability, which is within its technological means.

For now, however, the fact that North Korea has shown itself able to fly a drone so close to the seat of political power in Seoul has understandably raised questions about how South Korea’s military would respond to more significant threats. At the same time, it also appears to be the case that Seoul’s focus on countering the North’s growing nuclear and missile arsenal means it has taken its eye off the ball somewhat when it comes to more ‘primitive’ threats like drones.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.