On December 26 a unit of five North Korean drones flew deep into South Korean airspace, operating between the cities of Gimpo and Paju before reaching the capital Seoul and subsequently returning to base. The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that a military helicopter attempted to use its 20mm gun to neutralise one of the drones, which made evasive manoeuvres in response, with other southern sources indicating that the northern aircraft had likely been conducting a reconnaissance operation. Although over 100 rounds were fired at the drones by southern attack helicopters, none were successfully neutralised. A KA-1 attack jet which had also been launched to intercept, however, notably crashed during the incident with the pilot parachuting to safety. The South Korean government notably responded with statements indicating that the country lacked combat readiness, although among U.S. allies the country is considered to have among the very highest overall combat readiness rates and by many assessments the most capable U.S.-aligned military in the world.
The possibility of North Korea expanding its drone capabilities has been repeatedly raised over the past five years, with expert on Korean security scholar A. B. Abrams having reported in March 2021 that there was a significant possibility of the country acquiring stealth drone technologies from Iran to revolutionise its strike and reconnaissance capabilities. This would also partly compensate for the East Asian state’s lack of recent acquisitions of manned combat aircraft. Iranian stealth drones have proven highly capable in combat, including during operations over Israeli airspace, with its lower end non stealth drones having recently played an important role in Russia’s ongoing war effort in Ukraine. North Korea has been a key provider of defence technologies and equipment to Iran for over four decades, ranging from tanks and ballistic missiles to artillery and nuclear related technologies, with the possibility of a reverse transfer from an area of Iranian technological strength being far from unthinkable. The classes of drones North Korea deployed on December 26, and whether any of them had stealth capabilities, remains uncertain. The incident follows multiple North Korean ballistic missile tests, including of missiles with advanced radar evading capabilities, as well as exercises by the country’s air force unprecedented in recent years in response to joint U.S.-South Korean exercises simulating attacks on the country. Seoul and Washington have been technically in a state of war with Pyongyang for 72 years, with hostilities frozen under an armistice agreement in July 1953.