The Joint Security Area is the only portion of the Demilitarized Zone where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face.

The Joint Security Area is the only portion of the Demilitarized Zone where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face. (Sandra Garduno/U.S. Marine Corps)

CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — U.N. Command has concluded its investigation into a North Korean drone incursion last month and determined both Pyongyang and Seoul violated the armistice with their military operations.

A monthlong special investigation by the command’s Military Armistice Commission found that North Korea initially violated the armistice when it flew drones into South Korean airspace on Dec. 26, according to a report summary released by the command on Thursday.

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said last month it had detected five, small North Korean drones over northern Seoul and its western coast for about five hours. The military scrambled fighters and helicopters to intercept the aircraft; one of the helicopters fired about 100 machine gun rounds but was unable to down a drone.

None of the drones were captured and at least one is believed by the ministry to have returned to North Korea.

South Korea’s attempts to “neutralize the [North Korean] aircraft” in its airspace was in compliance with the armistice’s rules of engagement, according to the Military Armistice Commission’s report. 

The armistice states that a ceasefire applies to all air forces and that the forces “shall respect the air space … over the area of Korea under the military control of the opposing side.”

After the North Korean drones were spotted on Dec. 26, South Korean army Gen. Lee Seung Oh said in a statement the same day that the military would “resolutely respond to North Korea’s provocations” by taking “corresponding measures.” The South’s defense ministry later told reporters that the military flew its drones into North Korea’s airspace to conduct surveillance, including taking footage of military installations.

The commission found South Korea’s operation violated the armistice’s terms.

“[U.N.] Command reaffirms that adherence to the terms of armistice is essential for mitigating the risk of both accidental and deliberate incidents through prevention of escalation, and for preserving a cessation of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula,” the command said in the report summary. “[U.N. Command] will continue to work closely with [South Korean] partners towards those ends.”

The South’s defense ministry challenged the notion that Seoul had violated the armistice and said its drone operation was conducted in self-defense, according to a ministry statement to reporters on Thursday.

Following the Dec. 26 incident, the South Korean military apologized for failing to stop the drones. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol pledged to boost the military’s anti-drone capabilities and suggested suspending a five-year-old peace agreement with North Korea, according to a spokeswoman on Jan. 4.

David Choi is based in South Korea and reports on the U.S. military and foreign policy. He served in the U.S. Army and California Army National Guard. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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