South Korea launches jets, fires after North flies drones

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s military fired warning shots, launched fighter jets and moved surveillance equipment across its heavily fortified border with North Korea on Monday after North Korean drones violated its airspace for the first time in five years, officials said.

South Korea’s military has detected five drones from North Korea crossing the border and one reaching the northern part of the South Korean capital region, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

The military responded by firing warning shots and launching fighter jets and helicopters to shoot down the North Korean drones. The helicopter gunships fired a total of 100 rounds, but it was not immediately known if the North Korean drones were downed. There were no immediate reports of civilian damage on the ground in South Korea, according to the defense ministry.

One of the planes, a KA-1 light attack aircraft, crashed on takeoff, but its two pilots ejected safely, defense officials said. They said they also asked civilian airports in and near Seoul to temporarily suspend takeoffs.

South Korea has also sent surveillance assets near and across the border to photograph key North Korean military facilities as countermeasures against North Korean drone flights, the Joint Chiefs said. It was not specified, but some observers say South Korea may have operated unmanned drones on North Korean territory.

“Our military will respond thoroughly and decisively to this kind of North Korean provocation,” Major General Lee Seung-oh, director of operations at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.

South Korea’s public confirmation of any intelligence activities in North Korea is highly unusual and likely reflects the determination of the conservative government led by President Yoon Suk-yeol to be tough on North Korean provocations. North Korea could respond with more fiery rhetoric or weapons tests or other provocation, some observers say.

South Korea on Friday detected two short-range ballistic missile launches from North Korea, the latest in the country’s tumultuous weapons tests this year. Friday’s launches were seen as a protest against South Korea-US joint air drills, which North Korea sees as a rehearsal for an invasion.

It is the first time North Korean drones have entered South Korean airspace since 2017, when a suspected North Korean drone was found to have crashed in South Korea. South Korean military officials said at the time that the drone with a camera made by Sony had photographed a US missile defense system in South Korea.

North Korea has previously touted its drone program, and South Korean officials have said the North has about 300 drones. In 2014, several suspected North Korean drones equipped with Japanese-made cameras were found south of the border. Experts said they were low-tech but could be considered a potential security threat.

Earlier this month, North Korea said it had carried out major tests needed to acquire its first spy satellite and a more mobile intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US mainland. They were among the high-tech weapons systems that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has promised to introduce, along with multiple warheads, submarine-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines and hypersonic missiles.

North Korea released low-resolution photos of South Korean cities as seen from space, but some experts in South Korea said the images were too coarse for surveillance purposes. Such assessments infuriated North Korea, with Kim’s powerful sister Kim Yo Jong issuing a series of taunts to insult unidentified South Korean experts and express her anger.

North Korea will hold a key ruling Workers’ Party conference this week to review past policies and set policy goals. Some experts say that during the meeting, North Korea is likely to reaffirm its push to strengthen its nuclear and missile arsenals to counter what it calls hostile US policies, such as US-led international sanctions and its regular military training with South Korea.

North Korea will eventually use its increased nuclear capacity as a bargaining chip to win international recognition as a legitimate nuclear state, relief from international sanctions and other concessions, analysts say.

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