S. Korea’s leader calls for stealth drones to monitor North

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s president on Tuesday called for a stronger air defense and high-tech stealth drones to better monitor North Korea, a day after Seoul accused North Korea of flying five drones across the rivals’ tense border for the first time in five years.

South Korea’s military fired warning shots and scrambled warplanes and attack helicopters in response Monday, but there has been no confirmation that any of the North Korean drones were shot down. That has raised a serious question about South Korea’s air defense network at a time when tensions remain high over North Korea’s torrid run of missile tests this year.

“We have a plan to create a military drone unit tasked with monitoring key military facilities in North Korea. But we’ll advance the establishment of the drone unit as soon as possible because of yesterday’s incident,” President Yoon Suk Yeol said during a regular Cabinet Council meeting. “We’ll also introduce state-of-the art stealth drones and bolster our surveillance capability.”

He said that South Korea’s military needs more intensive readiness and exercises to cope with threats posed by North Korean drones. Yoon, a conservative who took office in May, said South Korea’s military has conducted little such training since 2017, when his liberal predecessor Moon Jae-in was inaugurated.

In an apparent effort to blame the alleged lax air defense system to Moon’s engagement policy toward North Korea, Yoon said, “I think our people must have seen well how dangerous a North Korea policy relying on the North’s good faiths and (peace) agreements would be.”

Moon or his allies didn’t immediately respond to Yoon’s statement.

Moon was credited with arranging now-dormant diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear program, but also faced criticism that his appeasement policy allowed North Korea to buy time and boost its nuclear capability in the face of international sanctions.

On Monday, South Korea also sent its own surveillance assets, apparently unmanned drones, across the border as corresponding steps against the North Korean drone flights. South Korea’s public confirmation of reconnaissance activities inside North Korea is highly unusual and likely reflects a resolve by Yoon to get tough on North Korean provocations.

It was the first time North Korean drones entered South Korean airspace since 2017. North Korea has touted its drone program, and South Korean officials have previously said the North had about 300 drones. Advanced drones are among modern weapons systems that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to procure, along with multi-warheads, underwater-launched nuclear missiles and a spy satellite.

On Friday, South Korea said North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles, extending its record testing activities this year.

Earlier Tuesday, North Korea’s state media said Kim called for stronger effort to overcome hardships and challenges facing his country at the start of a key ruling Workers’ Party meeting the previous day.

Some experts say Kim will likely use the meeting to reaffirm his resolve to expand his nuclear arsenal and introduce high-tech weapons targeting the U.S. and South Korea while laying out projects to revive pandemic-battered public livelihoods.

In his opening comments, Kim compared hardships and challenges since a bigger party meeting in early 2021 to “the ten-year struggle of the revolution.” But he claimed North Korea has reported some successes “in the arduous course” and that his country’s power has “remarkably” increased in political, military, economic and cultural areas.

“He stressed the need to lay out strategies to launch more exciting and confident struggles based on valuable facts that the country has achieved practical advance after enduring all difficulties,” the official Korean Central News Agency said. It said Kim reviewed the “splendid” achievement made this year and clarified “the strategic and tactical” tasks to achieve North Korean-style socialism.

KCNA didn’t elaborate on the achievement Kim claimed and the tasks he set, and his claims of achievement couldn’t be independently confirmed.

Kim may need such propaganda-driven claims to draw greater public loyalty to push difficult projects to bolster his weapons arsenal and address economic woes while facing U.S.-led sanctions and pressure campaigns to curb his nuclear ambitions, some observers say.

The Workers’ Party meeting is expected to last several days, and Kim will likely address issues such as his arms buildup, relations with the United States and the economy in later sessions.

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