- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
A downed drone believed to belong to North Korea has become an object of international ridicule since its discovery on a disputed South Korean border island this week. Variously described as “toy-like” and “a model airplane,” the drone carried a small, low-resolution camera and appeared similar to another drone recovered by South Korea on March 24. Both vehicles are almost comically simple compared to America’s arsenal of drones, and, as such, quickly became symbolic of North Korea’s apparently limited military capabilities.
To be sure, these drones are a far cry from the models on display during North Korea’s grand military parade in Pyongyang last year:
But we probably shouldn’t write off the Hermit Kingdom’s military might. While parts of North Korea’s defense arsenal are indeed woefully outdated — much of it was inherited from, or based on, decades-old Soviet and Chinese weapons — its military capabilities are hardly a joke. It has an estimated 1.2 million soldiers, for instance, and hundreds of warplanes and attack helicopters. Most importantly, of course, Pyongyang has nuclear weapons.
The Defense Department noted as much in its most recent annual report to Congress. Despite aging equipment and limited resources, “North Korea’s large, forward-positioned military can initiate an attack against [South Korea] with little or no warning” and can “inflict significant damage” on South Korea, its neighbors, and U.S. forces in the region, the report said.
The ridicule heaped on North Korea’s lilliputian drones reflects a broader conception of North Korea as backwards and isolated, but that thinking obscures the ways that the communist nation has built a military arsenal that has kept the U.S. and South Korean militaries at bay for the better part of seven decades. North Korean artillery, whose firing coordinates have been refined over the course of the decades-long stand-off, can basically obliterate Seoul.
North Korea also has the fourth largest military in the world, and retains a large ballistic missile arsenal which, while outdated, contains weapons capable of reaching targets throughout Asia.The age of its equipment shouldn’t be taken lightly either. A case in point: the military’s submarine force, which the report described as “unsophisticated but durable” proved its mettle in 2010 when one of its submarines covertly attacked and successfully sank the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.
For another example of how less sophisticated military technology can bedevil far superior military forces, consider the threat posed by Sweden’s Gotland-class diesel electric submarines. In exercises during the mid-2000s, a diminutive sub repeatedly sank Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the crown jewel of the U.S. Navy.
Meanwhile, the North Korean armed forces have copied U.S. arms and developed an unmanned target drone that the Pentagon believes to be modeled after the Raytheon MQM-107 Streaker target drone. In March 2013, North Korea carried out live fire drills with the drone, pictured below:
Which is all to say: Sure, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.