Several drones from North Korea crossed the heavily armed western border into South Korean airspace on Monday, provoking military action by Seoul at a time of rising tensions on the peninsula.
After the drones breached the border, the South Korean military scrambled fighter jets to try to shoot them down and sent its own surveillance drones into the North’s airspace. It also banned commercial airplanes from taking off at two international airports around Seoul for about an hour.
North Korea has a history of sending surveillance drones into South Korean airspace, with several detected since 2014. But it is rare for the South to respond to their intrusion by dispatching war planes.
Tensions have hit new heights this year on the Korean Peninsula, as the North stepped up its nuclear program and fired a record number of missiles. The United States and its allies South Korea and Japan have followed by strengthening their joint military drills.
When the North Korean drones crossed over the border on Monday just west of Seoul, the South Korean military broadcast warnings, later firing warning shots from war planes and scrambling attack helicopters into the air. The South also said its aircraft were on a mission to “shoot down” the North Korean drones, though it did not reveal whether any of them were taken out.
South Korea also dispatched both manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft near and beyond the inter-Korean border, the country’s military said. The South Korean aircraft took pictures of North Korean military facilities and engaged in other surveillance activities, it said.
“This is clearly an act of provocation in which the North violated our territorial airspace,” the South Korean military said in a statement.
Defense officials confirmed that one of the South Korean military planes — a KA-1 light attack aircraft — crashed shortly after taking off from an air base east of Seoul. Its two pilots safely ejected from their plane.
North Korea did not immediately react to the South Korean announcement.
When the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, met in 2018 with Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president at the time, the two agreed to create a no-fly zone and stop tension-raising activities like military drills along the border. But in recent months, North Korea has flouted the agreements by firing rockets and artillery into nearby waters, as well as by flying military planes close enough for the South to scramble its own war planes.
In recent years, North Korea has been steadily building up its arsenal, developing new missiles and drones. In 2013, North Korea’s state-run media showed Mr. Kim watching as drones attacked mock South Korean targets during a military drill.
In 2014, two surveillance drones that crashed in South Korea after flying over Seoul were later determined to have flown from the North. The South Korean Defense Ministry at the time said that North Korea might use small and hard-to-detect drones as “suicide bombers.”
In 2017, another North Korean drone crash-landed in the South. Data contained in the cameras found on these drones showed that they flew for hours over South Korea, taking pictures of military and other facilities.
It was not clear whether the drones detected on Monday were on surveillance missions or were armed with weapons.