Droning on and on: Why Kim Jong-Un and Syria’s Assad are buddies

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

When Kim Jong-Un and the North Korean propaganda machine hint they’ve got startling new weapons for striking terror into Americans thousands of miles away, they may not be talking about just their long-range missiles.

How about drones, possibly the most talked about new death-dealer in the inventory of modern killing machines?

Game-changer on the Korean peninsula?
Game-changer on the Korean peninsula?

We keep hearing about drones spreading death and destruction among friends as well as foes, among the bad guys and good civilians on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, but they don’t yet seem to be the weapon of choice on the Korean Peninsula. That’s not going to go on much longer, though.

If these instruments of terror are good to go in the rest of the world, we may be sure they’ll be good for use on both sides of the demilitarized zone. Has there ever been a modern weapon that wasn’t eventually deployed in North and/or South Korea? South Korea’s already clamoring for drones, the spy-in-the-sky kind, and we may be sure North Korea is developing them too.

In fact, according to Defensetech (“where technology and defense intersect”), the North Koreans have acquired an early version of a U.S. Air Force RA-170 Sentinel drone from one of its good friends in the Middle East — Syria.

Defensetech, embroidering on a Yonhap report from “a military source” in Seoul, said the idea was to “reverse-engineer” them and come up with new models. They might not traverse the Pacific, but they’d be plenty powerful enough to strike at South Korea, maybe Japan too.

North Korea’s acquisition of old American drones is one more reason why the North is so nice to the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. While most other countries are shocked by the killing inflicted by his armed forces on rebels as well as civilians, Kim Jong-Un sends him congratulatory notes on this or that holiday as did his father and grandfather before him.

How Syria got the American drones remains a mystery, at least to me, considering how terrible were U.S.-Syrian relations during much of the rule of Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, who died in 2000. Over the years, Syria has been a market not only for North Korean missiles but for nuclear technology as seen in the reactor that North Korean engineers were building for the Syrians until the Israelis bombed it out of the way in September 2007.

Soon both North and South are going to be sending up drones as reconnaissance aircraft, and it’s easy to imagine both Koreas outfitting them for attacks similar to those launched by the U.S. every day at targets in Afghanistan. The temptation at least to use them for intelligence-gathering is overwhelming.

Sending large planes laden with fancy gear and technicians for looks at North Korea is risky. Look what happened to the U.S. Navy’s EC121 on April 15, 1969, Kim Il-Sung’s 57th birthday — shot down by North Korean MiG17s on a routine reconnaissance patrol over the East Sea well outside North Korean air space with a loss of all 31 U.S. Navy personnel on board.

The convenience of drones is indeed tempting. The U.S. at the behest of President Barack Obama has used them successfully in Afghanistan – success, that is, when measured against the risks of losing piloted fighter planes as happened hundreds of times in the air war against North Vietnam in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

One could argue they’ve been far from successful considering civilian casualties, but then plenty of civilians were killed in air strikes in Vietnam – and many more during the Korean War when U.S. planes flattened much of Pyongyang and other North Korean cities.

Korea is particularly suited to drone warfare. What if North Korean threats turn into reality, if Northeast Asia bursts into war and the destruction of North Korean missile and nuclear test sites becomes a clear military goal? They’re remote and extremely well defended — why risk pilots when drones would be the way to get at them? And why not send drones after North Korean leaders just as the U.S. has wiped out Al Qaida and Taliban types with drone strikes?

One answer, as in all else about the long standoff on the Korean Peninsula, is that the North Koreans could do the same with their own drones – not to mention all those short to medium-range missiles and artillery pieces above the DMZ. As the U.S. draws down in Afghanistan while beefing up South Korean forces in anticipation of OpCon, transference of war-time “operational control” from the U.S. to South Korea, drones would be logical inventory items.

In the “pivot” toward Asia, drone warfare adds a scary new dimension to the confrontation.