North Korea and Stealth Drones: A Match Made in Military Heaven?

March 9, 2021 Topic: North Korea Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: North KoreaNuclearKim Jong UnWarDronesMilitary

North Korea and Stealth Drones: A Match Made in Military Heaven?

The military benefits of having drones are clear, but how will North Korea acquire such modern technologies to build its own feared fleet?

 

It was during the Eighth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party this past January when North Korea decided to focus more heavily on future military modernization plans, which include the development of new advanced stealth drones for the Korean People’s Army (KPA).

Although the isolated East Asian nation has displayed indigenous drones during military parades in the past, aviation has never a strong suit for North Korea’s million-strong army.

 

That, however, could all change with drones—largely because they are considerably cheaper and easier to manufacture than fighter jets or bombers. They also generally require much less maintenance and have much lower operational costs—monetary figures that North Korea always keeps a close eye on.

With this in mind, North Korea will likely shy away from acquiring new manned fighters in the near future, but there are indeed strong indications that the nation could tap more into the burgeoning strengths and convenience of unmanned aircraft.

“Aside from their value as strike platforms, as demonstrated in clashes in 2020 during conflicts in Idlib and Nagorno-Karabakh, drones can also serve as force multipliers to assets such as artillery and ballistic missiles by providing targeting data on enemy positions,” North Korean expert A. B. Abrams recently wrote in the Diplomat.

“The asymmetric nature of drone warfare, in particular, is likely the key to its appeal to the KPA, as it allows a small investment in often expendable aircraft to potentially seriously threaten much larger forces and cause serious losses in manpower and materiel. This was perhaps best demonstrated in 2017–18 when the Islamic State terror group used drones to great effect against Syrian and Iraqi forces, striking targets such as supply depots and bridges.”

The author added that North Korea “has long favored asymmetric warfare assets, from its small and quiet submarines, which can threaten much larger warships costing tens of times more, to mobile, relatively low-cost long-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, which can challenge enemy assets without needing to match their investment one-for-one in terms of performance.”

The military benefits of having drones are clear, but how will North Korea acquire such modern technologies to build its own feared fleet? 

It appears that all signs point to the Islamic Republic of Iran—a Middle Eastern country that North Korea has provided ballistic missiles to since the early 1980s. Even today, it is believed that a large number of Iranian missiles in service are of North Korean origin.

“Although North Korea remains ahead of Iran in terms of the overall capabilities of its defense sector, drones are a notable exception and represent a field where Iran has emerged as one of the world’s leading producers,” Abrams wrote. “Although North Korea has looked to the Middle East in the past for drone technologies, this was to acquire foreign designs, which were sold on for reverse engineering purposes, rather than aircraft that originated in the region.”

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.  

Image: Reuters