South Korea says it has scrambled fighter jets and attack helicopters, firing warning shots, after North Korean drones “violated” its airspace.
The country’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, a group of chiefs from each major branch of the armed services, said several unmanned North Korean drones crossed the border and were detected in the South’s territory on Monday.
It marks the first time the devices have entered South Korean airspace since 2017, when a suspected drone was found crashed in the country.
While working to counter the drones, a South Korean KA-1 light attack aircraft crashed shortly after departing its base in the country’s eastern area of Wonju, a defence ministry official said.
Its two pilots were able to escape before the crash and are were taken to hospital.
According to the South’s Yonhap news agency, the country tracked the drones crossing from North Korea over what is known as the Military Demarcation Line – the land border surrounded by a demilitarised zone – between the two countries.
One North Korean drone also briefly flew over the South’s capital city, Seoul, according to the South Korean news agency NEWS1.
Provocation is latest of many – but now a full nuclear weapons test is expected
This provocation from North Korea is just the latest in a series of incidents that have seen tensions on the Korean Peninsula rise to their highest levels in several years.
2022 has seen more missiles launched by the isolated state than at any other time since its leader, Kim Jong-un, came to power in 2011.
One in November crossed the unofficial maritime border between the two states and landed closer to the South Korean coast than ever before, another crossed over Japan.
North Korea is responding to what it sees as threatening and provocative joint military drills between South Korea and its ally, the United States.
It’s worth remembering, South Korea has a relatively new president who ran on a platform of taking a harder line against North Korea.
Yoon Suk-yeol has made the demilitarisation of North Korea an essential tenant of negotiations, which in practice means they have largely broken down.
Many are worried about where these escalations lead, with a full nuclear weapons test now very much expected.
It would be the first such test since 2017, and in the context of escalating actions and words, it’s hard to see how South Korea will not have to react in some way.
The country’s transport ministry said earlier flights departing from its Incheon and Gimpo airports were suspended following a request from the military.
North Korea has previously touted its drone program, and South Korean officials said the North has about 300 drones.
In 2014, several suspected North Korean drones were found south of the border, with experts describing them as low-tech but still a potential security threat.
Incident comes days after missile launch
The incident on Boxing Day comes just days after North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles toward its eastern waters, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The launch was seen as a protest at joint air drills being conducted by the South and the US, which North Korea views as an invasion rehearsal.
This year, North Korea has conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests in what some experts call an attempt to improve its weapons and pressure rivals to make concessions, such as lifting sanctions, in future negotiations.
Recently, the North has also claimed to have performed major tests needed to acquire its first spy satellite and a missile capable of reaching the US.