On Monday, January 15th, new photos of North Korean unmanned aerial vehicles Saetbyol-4 and Saetbyol-9, visual copies of American Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk and General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper, appeared on the Chinese internet. They made their public debut on July 6, 2023, during the Weapons and Equipment Exhibition 2023 commemorating the 70th anniversary of the “victory” in the Korean War. “Saetbyol” means “Morning Star” in Korean.
The photographs appeared on the Chinese blogging platform Weibo, on the user profile KONP. They depict North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un inspecting an undisclosed location where two unmanned aerial vehicles are present. Interestingly, the attire of the individuals in the photographs suggests that they might have been taken last year during the spring or summer, which aligns with the official debut date of both types.
Even more interesting is that the presented Saetbyol-4 has a different serial number, 2102002, than the one displayed at the Weapons and Equipment Exhibition 2023, where it was with number 2102001. This indicates that the North Koreans have built at least two aircraft of this type. However, it is also the same aircraft that was showcased in flight last year.
NEW: North Korea airs the first video footage of its two new military drones in action, showing a combat UAV firing missiles during flight. Read more about the unveiling here: https://t.co/AoOvLYVg2l pic.twitter.com/07uYQGJv3g
— NK NEWS (@nknewsorg) July 27, 2023
Similar to the American original, the Korean aircraft is intended for reconnaissance and surveillance, and according to official nomenclature, it is referred to as a strategic reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicle. The second unmanned system is the Saetbyol-9, a replica of the MQ-9A Reaper, which, like its progenitor, is an armed drone capable of carrying weapons and has been designated by the regime as a multi-role combat drone. It’s worth noting that the alphanumeric designations of the Korean aircraft are the same as the American originals. The Saetbyol-9 is said to use visually similar missiles to the American AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank guided missiles.
Interestingly, on July 6, 2023, as reported by NK News, satellite images were taken during the preparations for flight tests of both types of aircraft. Based on these images, it was calculated that the wingspan of the Saetbyol-4 is approximately 19.8 meters (65 feet), and the Saetbyol-9 is slightly larger at 20.1 meters (66 feet), while the American originals have wingspans of 39.9 meters (130.9 feet) and 20 meters (65.7 feet) respectively. Therefore, the replica of the Global Hawk is actually much smaller than the original, whereas the Reaper replica is closer in size.
Yes, they are real and they can fly.
— Clash Report (@clashreport) January 15, 2024
However, even replicating sophisticated airframe structures and using appropriately powerful propulsion doesn’t necessarily mean that North Korean industry has developed capabilities equivalent to American unmanned systems (a challenge arises particularly with composite structures used in American originals). The airframe is one thing, while its capabilities and the payload it carries are another. This is because it’s the optoelectronic sensors, radar, navigation systems, and communication systems (especially satellite) that represent the most sophisticated equipment systems on such aircraft.
It is unclear what the North Koreans based their aircraft on when creating their drones, as legal procurement is not an option for obvious reasons. For example, on October 31, 2021, a photograph of an object resembling the tail section of an RQ-4 Global Hawk was circulated on social media in Iran. In this case, however, the Iranians could have used reverse engineering, possibly aided by the wreckage of the American MQ-4C Triton, which is a derivative of the Global Hawk, shot down on June 20, 2019, in the vicinity of the Hormozgan province.
There is no information to suggest that the Americans have lost an RQ-4/MQ-4 or MQ-9 in the Korean Peninsula region.