South Korea has acknowledged a surveillance drone, likely operated by North Korea, flew over the presidential palace in Seoul and took several pictures, before crashing near the border.
Seoul says the crudely built, unmanned aircraft was equipped with a basic camera containing about 200 aerial photographs, including some taken from directly above the presidential Blue House.
Defense Minister Kim Min-seok said the drone, which was less than two meters long, did not have the capability to transmit the images back to North Korea and was not able to be weaponized.
"It is of primitive standard, and it would not have been easy to use it in an act of terror, or more precisely, it would not have been possible," he said. " But it could possibly be used in an act of terror if it gets more developed for long time in the future."
2nd drone crash
The aircraft, found in the border city of Paju, was one of two suspected North Korean drones that crashed late last month in South Korean territory. The other was recovered on the frontline Baengnyeong Island after the two Koreas exchanged artillery fire into one another's sea boundaries.
Many Korea analysts are downplaying the danger posed by the drones, saying they appear to be poorly designed and unsophisticated.
"It looks like something I made with my friends in high school. I'm actually pretty impressed that they managed to mount a camera on there," said Robert Kelly, an international relations professor at Pusan National University in South Korea.
Kelly, who spoke with VOA by telephone, was referring to pictures in South Korean media that showed wreckage of the light-blue aircraft, which almost had a toy-like appearance.
"I wouldn't really define this as much of a threat. These things are pretty small, and [the North Koreans] already know what the Blue House is -- you can see the Blue House on Google Earth, and you can sort of drive by it," he noted. " If they were going to drop a bomb on top of the Blue House, it's not too hard to find. I'm not really convinced this is a game changer."
Others see the drones as part of a rising threat posed by North Korea's fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles.
"I think this does represent a threat," said Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. " It's not the worst of the threats that North Korea poses. These drones can't carry chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. But they're certainly indicators of malicious intent."
Fitzpatrick said with enough time, Pyongyang can likely produce much more sophisticated drone technology without much difficulty.
"It's not such a state of the art technology. Drone technology is becoming very widespread," he noted. "And given North Korea's military relationship with Iran, which has developed drones of its own and which has been the benefactor of a couple of U.S. very sophisticated drones which crashed on its territory, some of that technology could easily be acquired. So I think what we're seeing today with these toy-like surveillance drones - they're just the beginning of what we'll be seeing in the future."
It is unclear what North Korea intended to accomplish by sending the drones into the South.
Remco Breuker, a professor of Korean studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told VOA he would not rule out the possibility that the drone mission is a prelude to a wider escalation of military tensions.
"The thing I'd be worried about now is the North Korean intentions. They've quite clearly, I think, not respected South Korean territorial integrity again. And I wonder what's behind that, and whether we are looking at another escalation of tensions like we saw last year," Breuker said.
Tensions between the two Koreas have risen in recent weeks because of annual joint U.S.-South Korean military drills and a series of rocket and ballistic missile launches by Pyongyang.
Earlier this week, North Korea fired 100 artillery rounds into the sea on the South Korean side of the maritime border, prompting Seoul to fire its own rounds back into northern waters. No one was injured in the exchange.
The two Koreas remain in a technical state of war following their 1950s armed conflict, which ended in a truce and not a formal peace treaty.