A possible North Korean drone took numerous photos of a new U.S. missile defense site located in South Korea before crashing near the demilitarized zone between the two countries, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
The drone, according to the report, was found last week just days after North Korea test-fired a salvo of anti-ship missiles. The test, reportedly overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, marked the latest escalation following a series of weapon trials in recent months that have steadily ratcheted up tensions in the region.
A South Korean Defense Ministry official, who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity, said that the drone was found in a South Korean Border town and that it taken 10 photos of a U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) site located in Seongju. The Sony digital camera aboard the drone had hundreds of photos stored, though most of the images were of various agricultural areas in South Korea, according to the report.
The THAAD system, is a sophisticated missile defense system that uses kinetic energy to destroy warheads in flight. The Pentagon has deployed the THAAD to South Korea in effort to assuage fears of U.S. allies in the region as North Korea has continually tested mid- to long-range missiles that could soon be mounted with a nuclear weapon.
The THAAD deployment, however, has angered China because the system’s long-range AN/TPY-2 radar has the ability to peer into Chinese territory. Earlier this month, South Korea halted the deployment of four THAAD launchers to the site in Seongju after newly elected President Moon Jae-in called for an environmental inspection of the area.
The official told the AP said that twin-engine unmanned aircraft had crashed because it ran out of fuel but that it had flown farther than other North Korean drones recovered in years past. North Korea is believed to have 300 drones in its arsenal, according to the AP report.
North Korea has long boasted of its drone fleet, showcasing reconnaissance and attack drones modeled after similar U.S. aircraft during parades in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, the South Korean Defense Ministry announced that it had recovered four crashed North Korean drones between October 2013 and September of that year.
According to 38 North, a Korea-related analysis site maintained by Johns Hopkins University, these recovered drones were largely unsophisticated and followed a preplanned route with limited data-transmitting capabilities. Unlike the recently found drone, however, these older aircraft all were powered by a single engine.
Unsophisticated drones, such as the ones used by North Korea, have steadily become an important issue for U.S. troops around the world. The Islamic State regularly employs off-the-shelf unmanned aircraft to attack U.S.-backed troops in Iraq and Syria. To combat this emergent issue, the Pentagon has toyed with an array of different countermeasures, from anti-drone rifles to truck-mounted scrambling devices. It is unclear if any of these devices will be deployed to South Korea.