- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A suspected North Korean spy drone flew more than 100 miles into South Korea and snapped photos of the recently deployed U.S. anti-ballistic missile system before circling back and crashing on the southern side of the fortified border that divides the Korean peninsula.

Defense officials in Seoul said Tuesday the small unmanned craft was equipped with a 64-gigabyte memory chip and a camera made by the Japanese tech giant Sony, and was similar in size to other North Korean drones recovered after crashing in the South in 2014.

The discovery coincides with concern in Washington over Pyongyang’s drone operations following recent warnings by a high-level North Korean defector, who claimed the Kim Jong-un regime has a fleet capable of being armed with chemical and biological weapons, and of avoiding radars, including the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

Washington has recently deployed THAAD components to Seongju, South Korea — a remote hillside county roughly 150 miles south of the so-called “Demilitarized Zone” along the North-South border — in response to increased ballistic missile testing by Pyongyang.

Tuesday’s development suggests the North Koreans may have closely monitored the deployment with drones. “It was confirmed that [the drone] took photos of the THAAD site in Seongju,” said one South Korean defense official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity Tuesday, according to the South’s Yonhap news agency.

THAAD’s deployment has been sharply opposed by China, North Korea’s main ally and economic supporter, which claims the real reason behind Washington’s deployment is to spy on and contain Chinese — not just North Korean — military assets.

U.S. officials say the Chinese complaints are unfounded and have alternatively pushed for China to pressure Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear weapons and missile provocations.

South Korean officials, meanwhile, said the wreckage of the suspected North Korean drone, discovered on a mountainside Friday, included a camera that had captured 10 photos of THAAD’s truck-mounted rocket launchers and radar components.

The officials said they had not yet determined whether the drone transmitted the photos to Pyongyang prior to crashing, and that additional photos stored on the camera were mostly of residential areas and agricultural fields.

The drone is believed to have gone down because it ran out of fuel while returning to North Korea. It crashed in the South’s Gangwon Province — some 130 miles north of where THAAD is positioned in Seongju.

While its flight pattern is unclear, the crash site’s proximity to the South’s eastern coast along the Sea of Japan suggests the drone may have hugged the shoreline to avoid detection. “We will come up with measures to deal with North Korean drones,” said an official at South Korea’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also declined to be identified.

Concern about drones has mounted amid recent claims by a high-level North Korean defector, who said last month that Pyongyang is capable of flying the devices at low altitudes to avoid radar detection and thwart a South Korean military system that uses electronic jamming to prevent drone incursions.

The defector, a 42-year-old former third secretary who fled the North’s regime in 2015, also claimed Pyongyang has attack drones capable of carrying biological and chemical weapons to Seoul within one hour.

North Korea has run a clandestine program since the late 1990s that includes preparations to mount such weapons on drones for aerial attacks, according to an interview with the defector using the alias Jin-myeong Han that the Sekai Nippo newspaper in Japan published in May.

The newspaper described Mr. Han has having begun his career in the North Korean air force and having once been involved in managing the regime’s drone activities. “My guess is that it has 300 to 400 drones,” Mr. Han said, adding that the drones are stored underground to avoid detection by U.S. and other reconnaissance satellites.

Pyongyang’s drone fleet has been known for some time. Speculation surged in 2014 when three North Korean drones crashed in South Korean territory. Military officials in Seoul said those unmanned crafts were also mounted with Japanese cameras.

A U.N. report last year said Pyongyang has about 300 drones of different types, including reconnaissance and combat. The report said the drones previously recovered in South Korea were probably acquired through front companies in China, with parts manufactured in the U.S., Japan, the Czech Republic and China.

This article is based on wire service reports.

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