South Korea launches jet, fires after North Korea flies drone

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s military fired warning shots, scrambled fighter jets and flew over the heavily fortified border with North Korea on Monday after a North Korean drone violated its airspace for the first time in five years. Tensions escalate.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the South’s military detected five drones from North Korea crossing the border, including one flying north of South Korea’s capital region, about an hour’s drive away.

The military responded by firing warning shots and dispatching fighter jets and attack helicopters to shoot down the North Korean drone. The attack helicopters fired a total of 100 rounds, according to the Ministry of Defense, but it was unclear if any North Korean drones were shot down.

There were no immediate reports of civilian casualties on the ground in South Korea. The Joint Chiefs of Staff said that one of the North Korean drones returned to North Korea after staying in South Korea for three hours, and the rest of the drones disappeared from South Korean military radars one after another.

The swift response by the North Korean drone and South Korea comes three days after North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles in a fiery weapons test this year. Friday’s launch was seen as a protest against the joint South Korea-U.S. air drills, which North Korea sees as a rehearsal for an invasion.

A KA-1 light attack aircraft scrambled by South Korea on Monday crashed on takeoff but both pilots ejected safely, defense officials said. They also asked civilian airports in and around Seoul to temporarily suspend takeoffs, they said.

South Korea is also sending surveillance assets to film North Korea’s main military installations near and along the border as a countermeasure against North Korean drone flights, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. It did not elaborate, but some observers said South Korea may have flown the drone over North Korean territory.

“Our military will respond thoroughly and resolutely to such provocations by North Korea,” Major General Lee Seung-oh, chief of operations at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.

South Korea’s public confirmation of any reconnaissance in North Korea is highly unusual and may reflect President Yoon Suk-yeol’s conservative government’s determination to get tough on North Korean provocations. Some observers said North Korea could respond with more rhetoric or a weapons test or other provocation.

This is the first time a North Korean drone has entered South Korean airspace since 2017, when a suspected North Korean drone was spotted crashing in South Korea. South Korean military officials said at the time that the drone, equipped with a Sony-made camera, had filmed South Korea’s U.S. missile defense system.

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

A White House national security official said U.S. officials were “in close consultation with (the Republic of Korea) on the nature of the intrusion.”

“We recognize South Korea’s need to protect its territorial integrity,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity and comment. “The United States’ commitment to defending the Republic of Korea remains unwavering.”

Earlier this month, North Korea claimed to have conducted the major tests needed to acquire its first spy satellite and a more mobile intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States. They are among the high-tech weapons systems that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to introduce, along with multiple warheads, underwater-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear-powered submarines and hypersonic missiles.

Kim also called for the development of reconnaissance drones capable of precisely monitoring enemy territory to a depth of 500 kilometers (310 miles). In 2013, he watched a drone strike drill against simulated targets in South Korea, according to North Korean state media.

North Korea had earlier released low-resolution photos of South Korean cities seen from space, but some experts in South Korea said the images were too grainy for surveillance purposes. Such comments angered North Korea, with Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister, making a series of derisive remarks insulting the unidentified South Korean expert and expressing her anger.

North Korea will hold a key meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party this week to review past policies and set policy goals. During the meeting, North Korea is likely to reiterate its efforts to strengthen its nuclear and missile arsenal in response to what it calls hostile U.S. policies, such as U.S.-led international sanctions and regular military training with South Korea, some experts said.

Analysts say North Korea will eventually use its enhanced nuclear capabilities as a bargaining chip to win international recognition as a legal nuclear state, easing of international sanctions and other concessions.

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