What They Said is a weekly series on the quotes behind the headlines.
On December 26, 2022, five North Korean drones crossed into South Korea’s airspace. The South Korean military fired warning shots and scrambled fighter jets and helicopters to shoot down the drones but failed—one KA-1 light attack aircraft even crashed during take off. Moreover, the South Korean military was unable to track the drones, which vanished from the radar after a few hours and are presumed to have flown over South Korea for at least seven hours.
Rather than admit the administration’s failure to protect the country’s airspace, President Yoon Suk Yeol accused the previous Moon Jae-in administration of having pro-North Korea policies and inadequate military training:
“Yesterday, North Korean military drones invaded our airspace.
This was an incident that showed that our military’s preparedness and training over the past several years has been extremely lacking, and it confirmed the need for more intensive readiness and training.
Looking at the fact that efforts to respond to drones, training, and the building of military strength have not been properly conducted, and training has been completely absent since 2017, I believe that everyone can see how dangerous a North Korea policy is that relies only on North Korea’s good intentions and military agreements.
We were planning to establish a drone unit to monitor and reconnoiter major military facilities in North Korea, and taking yesterday’s incident as an opportunity, we will expedite the creation of the drone unit as much as possible.
And we will strengthen surveillance and reconnaissance by making stealth drones with cutting-edge technology. It is unfortunate that next year’s budget for responding to military drone provocations has been cut by half in the National Assembly.
I will persuade the National Assembly again in the new year to increase the defense budget in order to relieve our people’s anxiety and expand the budget and build military strength.”
— Yoon Suk Yeol, president of South Korea, December 27, 2022
However, Yoon’s remarks came under harsh criticism from the Democratic Party of Korea, as a drone unit was established in 2018 under the Moon Jae-in administration, which had also acquired the assets that were used to track these drones.
Lee Soo-Jin, the floor spokesperson for the Democratic Party, criticized Yoon for shifting the blame to the Moon administration:
“President Yoon Seok-yeol is raising doubts about his qualifications as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces by blaming the former administration for a security disaster.
North Korean drones invaded South Korean airspace for seven hours before leisurely disappearing. The drones approached civilian areas and even the airspace over Seoul.
The National Security Council (NSC) was not convened, and there were no evacuation notifications or air raid alerts. The military failed to shoot down a single drone.
Did President Yoon Suk Yeol simply stare at the drones for seven hours?
Just as the president asked questions of the government officials involved in the Itaewon tragedy, the people are asking questions of the president, who is there to serve the people.
Unimaginably terrible things could have happened to the people of the Republic of Korea. Yet, instead of apologizing to the people, the president today blamed the previous administration for the security disaster.
Know your limits in avoiding responsibility. Is ‘blaming the previous administration’ allowed for the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, who must protect the lives and assets of the people?
What is lacking is the president’s idea of security and responsibility as the commander-in-chief, isn’t it?
Before blaming the drone response budget, the president should first look at the findings of his Board of Audit and Inspection on the defense budget and the results of the evaluation conducted prior to the procurement of military equipment by the Ministry of Defense.
People are asking, ‘Should we trust such a president and continue to entrust to him the military command of the Republic of Korea?’”
— Lee Su-jin, floor spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Korea, December 27, 2022
South Korea’s military apologized for failing to shoot down the North Korean drones, but denied that the no-fly zone around the president’s office had been violated. However, on December 29, 2022, Kim Byung-ju, a National Assembly member for the Democratic Party and a former four star general, went on Kim Hyun-Jung’s News Show on CBS Radio and suggested the possibility of the North Korean drones having entered the no-fly zone near the President’s Office in Yongsan:
“From what I’ve seen, the 3.7 kilometer radius from Yongsan is a no-fly zone. There is a good chance that the drones passed through it. It’s impossible to distinguish from this map, so there is a need for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to accurately assess during their inspection whether or not the drones entered the no-fly zone. … Not only Yongsan, but if the drones passed over the Jongno and Namsan areas, those are part of the no-fly zone too. So what we need to see is not whether the drones passed over Yongsan but whether they entered the no-fly zone or not.”
— Kim Byung-ju, National Assembly member for the Democratic Party, December 29, 2022
On the same day, Col. Lee Sung-jun, a spokesperson for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed “strong regret” but denied the possibility once again, saying that the enemy drones had not intruded into the P-73 no-fly zone. On January 5, 2023, however, the JCS retracted their statement and explained that one of the drones had in fact entered the no-fly zone near the president’s office, although the aircraft had not flown directly over the Yongsan area.
An official from the Office of the President then questioned the source of Kim Byung-ju’s information, saying that even the authorities had not known about the drones entering the no-fly zone near the president’s office. On January 6, Joo Ho-young, the People Power Party’s floor leader, added to the suspicions, saying: “The military authorities had not confirmed it, so [Kim Bjuyng-ju] needs to reveal whether he received the confidential information from inside the military or from other sources.”
Shin Won-sik, another National Assembly member for the People Power Party and a former three star general, went further and suggested that Kim could have been communicating with North Korea:
“If the Democratic Party knew of the North Korean drone’s tracks before the South Korean military, isn’t the Democratic Party then confessing that it is colluding with North Korea? …”
— Shin Won-sik, National Assembly member for the People Power Party, January 6, 2023
And so this incident seems to have sparked another battle of colors—the People Power Party claiming that the Democratic Party is somehow siding with the communist North Korea.
But the important point is that South Korean airspace was violated by North Korean drones and the South’s military was unable to respond to the provocation properly. Is South Korea safe from the North’s possible attacks in the future? Perhaps it’s time for the the politicians and the military to focus on protecting the people rather than shifting blame and shirking responsibility.