DEMILITARIZED ZONE, Korea — Security along the DMZ has gone high-tech, as South Korea has quietly installed a number of machine gun-armed robots to serve as the first line of defense against the potential advance of North Korean soldiers.
The stationary robots — which look like a cross between a traffic signal and a tourist-trap telescope — are more drone than Terminator in concept, operated remotely just outside the southern boundary of the DMZ by humans in a nearby command center.
Officials refuse to say how many or where the robots have been deployed along the heavily fortified border between the two Koreas, but did say they were installed late last month and will be operated on an experimental basis through the end of the year.
South Korean military officials will then decide how many, if any, robots they want complementing the soldiers who man the area adjacent to the 2.5-mile-wide DMZ, which stretches 160 miles across the peninsula.
“The robots are not being deployed to replace or free up human soldiers,” said Huh Kwang-hak, a spokesman for Samsung Techwin, the manufacturer of the SGR-1 robot. “Rather, they will become part of the defense team with our human soldiers. Human soldiers can easily fall asleep or allow for the depreciation of their concentration over time,” he said. “But these robots have automatic surveillance, which doesn’t leave room for anything resembling human laziness. They also won’t have any fear (of) enemy attackers on the front lines.”
South Korea Ministry of National Defense spokesman Kwon Ki-hyeon said his agency is overseeing the project so he could not comment on the DMZ robot experiment. He referred questions to Samsung Techwin.
Huh said no government officials would talk about the robots: “This experimental project is highly classified.” However, he said he was free to discuss how the SGR-1 robots operate and talk in general about their use.
A couple of experts on Korean relations said they did not see the deployment of the robots as the start of any new era of indiscriminate killing by remote control. Rather, they called the SGR-1 experiment the next logical step in making sure the DMZ continues to be an effective buffer against North Korean aggression.
“I am still a strong believer that nothing beats the humans’ ability to monitor,” said Kim Byungki, an international relations professor at Korea University in Seoul, but the DMZ robots will allow the South Korean military to compensate “for the existing weaknesses of what humans can do.”
David Garretson, a Seoul-based professor of international relations at the University of Maryland University College, said it is unlikely “all this sci-fi stuff” will lead to a war in which “you let the machines fight it out and whichever machine wins, wins the war.”
“I’m kind of ambivalent,” he said. “The main thing is, it is going to happen anyway. Technology is going to march forward and it is just a question of how human beings are going to handle it.”
When the robots’ heat or motion detectors sense a possible threat, an alarm goes off in the form of a siren or signal on the screen at the command center. The operator then uses the robots’ video and audio communication equipment to talk with anyone identified by the SGR-1 before deciding whether to fire the 5.5-milimeter machine gun.
“The robots, while having the capability of automatic surveillance, cannot automatically fire at detected foreign objects or figures,” Huh said, when asked whether a North Korean defector might accidentally be shot. Commanders make the final decisions to open fire.
“The SGR-1 is essentially a protection technology which will serve and protect our human soldiers against enemy attackers in their dispatched danger zones,” he said. “The SGR-1 can and will prevent wars.”
U.S. Forces Korea spokesman David Oten declined comment on the robots other than to say they are not deployed inside the southern half of the DMZ, which is under the control of the U.S.-led United Nations Command. The South Korean military has primary responsibility for everything south of the DMZ’s southern boundary.
Huh said the robots cost about $200,000 each, and a set of them have been deployed at the DMZ. He declined to say how many robots are in a set. It takes less than a day to set up each robot, and it takes a minimum of two people –- an operator and commander -– to operate each set of robots.
Similar armed robots have been used by the South Korean military on an experimental basis in Afghanistan, Iraq and along the west coast of South Korea, near the DMZ, officials said. The robots can identify targets more than two miles away in daylight, and more than a mile away at night, and can shoot a target as far as two miles away. They are also capable of firing rubber bullets as a warning.
Kim said the robots can only help South Korea, given the heightened tension with the North in the wake of the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan warship and the deaths of 46 South Korean crewmen. The South said a North Korean torpedo took down the Cheonan, while the North denied any involvement in the sinking.
“There is a need for strengthened monitoring and reconnaissance, and a need for much more military and intelligence awareness in the DMZ in respect to possible provocations,” Kim said.
Whether the robots are going to be a long-term addition to the security at the DMZ, he said, “will depend on the performance of the system. Performance is highly subjective.”
Garretson agreed: “It all really depends on how well the darn thing works.”
Translator Kim Taery contributed to this report.