SEOUL— A South Korean investigation has pointed to North Korea as the likely culprit behind unmanned spy drones that recently violated its airspace. Analysts say the drones are a concern but do not pose as big a security threat as North Korea's nuclear program, which Pyongyang vowed to step up with a “new form” of test.
South Korea's Ministry of Defense on Friday said three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, found crashed in the country were almost certainly from North Korea.
The ministry said that based on the size of the fuel tanks, flight speed and photos found on a drone camera, they could not be from China or Japan.
The sky blue color of the drones is also very similar to the ones shown during a North Korean military parade and during leader Kim Jong Un’s visit to a military unit. Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said they will share the evidence with the United States and other countries before making a final conclusion.
He said that if the drones are identified as being from North Korea, then the South's military will strongly respond to Pyongyang as it is a grave, provocative action crossing into South Korean airspace.
Wreckage from the three drones was found in recent weeks near the heavily-armed border dividing the two Koreas.
It is not immediately clear what caused the spy vehicles to crash.
The toy-airplane-like drones were ridiculed in South Korean media for their low-tech design. The photos captured were low resolution and the programmed drones were not capable of real-time control or transmitting images.
Nonetheless, the drones were able to evade detection from South Korea's military and take photos of installations and Seoul's presidential compound.
If upgraded, the drones could be used to launch targeted attacks, notes Daniel Pinkston, Deputy Northeast Asia Director with the International Crisis Group.
"If these devices are configured in other ways, they could deliver biological weapons for example. Also if they became more sophisticated and could relay real-time data, they could be used for targeting purposes," said Pinkston.
Nonetheless, North Korea's drone threat to South Korea is much less of a concern than its missile and nuclear programs.
Pyongyang in late March promised a “new form” of nuclear test.
Analysts say that could mean anything from multiple or deeper explosions to a more powerful device or one made of something other than plutonium.
Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the possibility of North Korea engaging in a fourth nuclear test is not that high. Because the blow-back on North Korea would be serious, he said, to have a test would be a burden for North Korea. He thinks North Korea is playing its brinkmanship tactics with rhetoric.
Pinkston disagrees, and said a fourth nuclear test is just a matter of timing.
"They will consider the international situation including China, which is very important, and also the relationship with South Korea. But, at the end of the day, North Korean leadership will be driven by their principles, their objectives, and what they are trying to achieve, which is to become a full fledged nuclear weapons state," said Pinkston.
South Korean officials promise “unimaginable consequences” if Pyongyang tests another nuclear device.
Political analysts say that would likely mean a similar period of cold relations that followed previous tests as well as stepped-up economic sanctions.
Seoul also plans to acquire low-altitude radar and precise weapons systems so they can track and destroy the North's spy drones.
VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.