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(LEAD) N. Korean drone sent from southwestern airport during firing drill

2014/04/03 17:29

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, April 3 (Yonhap) -- The drone that crashed on a South Korean border island during Pyongyang's live-fire drill earlier this week is believed to have been sent from an airport on the west coast of North Korea, a military official said Thursday.

South Korea collected the drone from Baengnyeong Island, just south of the western maritime border during North Korea's live-fire drill on Monday.

The drone was discovered while South Korean Marines returned artillery fire after some of the North's shells fell into southern waters during the three-hour drill that began shortly after noon.

Standing on the highest level of guard, the rival Koreas dispatched fighter jets near the maritime border to conduct patrol missions and prepare for potential clashes.

"The Air Force spotted the unmanned aerial vehicle that was flying from Onchon Airport in North Korea," the official said, asking for anonymity. "The drone is believed to have taken off from the airport."

   According to the analysis of photos contained in its camera memory card, the UAV moved from Socheong to Daecheong Islands in a zigzag pattern and fell on the nearby Baengnyeong Island as its engine stopped due to fuel shortage, a senior defense ministry said.

"The drone took photos while moving in an S shape from Socheong and Daecheong islands," the official spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The aircraft crashed on the land as its parachute didn't function properly."

   Some of the photos were taken from above military installations on the front-line islands, though there were no photos taken from Baengnyeong Island, he said, noting a reconnaissance flight by North Korea.

The four-engine drone is 1.8 meters long and 2.4 meters wide, and is made of multilayered fiberglass, which is hard to detect with radar. It didn't have a real-time image transmission system.

The aircraft took off with a remote control and automatically flew according to a series of coordinates using the GPS system at an average speed of 100 km to 120 km per hour at an altitude of 1.3 km, the official said.

The UAV is similar to the drone that flew undetected and was discovered in Paju, south of the demilitarized zone on March 24.

According to the interim investigation result, the Paju drone, which is smaller in size than the one discovered on Baengnyeong, crashed due to engine failure and landed on the ground unscathed using a parachute, the ministry official said.

While experts believe Pyongyang developed the small drones based on the Soviet-era designs to enhance its surveillance of South Korea, the drone incursions have raised concerns over South Korea's air defense capacity as the drone recovered in Paju had taken about 200 photos of the border and the capital city Seoul.

Among them were photos taken from airspace above the presidential office in downtown Seoul and military installations near the border, revealing holes in the air security of South Korea.

While some reports said Pyongyang may have acquired the photos with a data transmission system, Seoul's defense ministry said the antiquated drone does not have that capability.

"Although the drone had a 0.9 GHz transmission system, it is used to control the vehicle and receive GPS signals, not for sending images," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing. "Although the cameras can take photos, (the drone) cannot send the images."

   Fingerprints were collected from the UAV found in Paju, which belongs to no South Korean citizen, Kim said, another corroborating evidence that shows the North's involvement.

If the ongoing in-depth analysis confirms the North's responsibility in the drone incursion, the South Korean government will make a statement on the act considered an "illegal border incursion," Kim said.

ejkim@yna.co.kr

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