South Korean and American intelligence agencies are scrambling to figure out just what kind of UAV capability North Korea has. The intel community already knew that North Korea had been interested in UAVs since the 1970s but had never bought or built a lot of them. In the late 1980s North Korea acquired some of China’s first generation UAVs (ASN-104s). These were 140 kg (304 pound) aircraft with a 30 kg (66 pound) payload and endurance of two hours. Very crude by today’s standards but it took real time video and higher resolution still photos. In the 1990s the North Koreans produced some ASN-104s, apparently by just copying the Chinese ones they had. In the 1990s North Korea got some Russian DR-3 jet powered UAVs. These were faster but less useful than the ASN-104s. Attempts to use the DR-3 as the basis for a cruise missile design failed. In the 1990s North Korea also got some Russian Pchela-1T UAVs. These were very similar to the ASN-104s and that means not very useful at all. The Chinese and Russians used these first generation UAVs mainly for correcting artillery fire and this is what North Korea was seen doing with them, particularly North Korean coastal artillery.
This sudden curiosity about North Korean UAVs was prompted by the discovery earlier this year of three North Korean UAVs that had crashed in South Korea. It was soon discovered that North Korea was using modified versions of the commercial Chinese SKY-09P UAV. North Korea gave the SKY-09Ps a new paint job (to make it harder to spot), a muffler (to make it less detectable) and installed a different camera. The SKY-09P was used via its robotic mode, where the SKY-09P flew to pre-programmed GPS coordinates, taking digital photos over selected areas and returned with those photos stored on a memory card. The SKY-09Ps found in South Korea had GPS coordinates in their guidance system showing they originated and were to return to a location in North Korea. The memory cards showed pictures of South Korean government (mainly military) facilities.
The most successful UAV the North Koreans ever used was a Chinese commercial model, the SKY-09P. This is a 12 kg (26 pound) delta wing aircraft with a wingspan of 1.92 meters (6.25 feet). propeller in the front and a payload of three kg (6.6 pounds). It is launched via a catapult and lands via a parachute. Endurance is 90 minutes and cruising speed is 90 kilometers an hour. When controlled from the ground it can go no farther than 40 kilometers from the controller. But when placed on automatic it can go about 60 kilometers into South Korea and return with photos. These things cost the North Koreans a few thousand dollars each. While South Korea says they detected two of the three crashed North Korea UAVs no other details were provided. The Chinese manufacturer denied selling anything to North Korea, but the North Koreans typically use a third party for purchases like this.