TOKYO — In one of the world's more unusual war games, the South Korean military conducted exercises Friday aimed at repelling any North Koreans who might sail over the demilitarized zone undetected in hang gliders or hot air balloons.
The training exercises, the first of their kind in South Korea, were conducted in Kumchon county, between Seoul and the demilitarized zone, using civilian gliding enthusiasts posing as North Korean infiltrators, a statement from the Ministry of Defense said.
For the past two years, North Korea has been importing hang gliders, motorized paragliders and hot air balloons and has been training a special unit to use them to sneak into South Korea for espionage or possibly to launch biological or chemical weapons attacks, Defense Ministry officials said.
The officials said gliders could cross the DMZ, the most heavily fortified border in the world, at an altitude of between about 4,600 and 10,800 feet without being picked up by South Korean radar. They said the North might attempt an air infiltration because three of its spy submarines have been captured by the South since 1996.
"Anything is possible with North Korea," Ministry of Defense spokesman Koo Bon Hak said Friday. "We must be prepared for any contingencies."
Although the United States has 37,000 troops in South Korea--thousands within gliding distance of the DMZ--U.S. forces did not participate in the exercises Friday.
A spokesman, Col. Carl Kropf, declined to comment on whether the U.S. considers the possibility of North Korean infiltrators using hang gliders or hot air balloons to be a bona fide security threat.
However, two independent military analysts in Seoul and Tokyo scoffed at the need to beef up defenses against hang-gliding North Korean agents.
"From a military point of view, it's total nonsense," said Kensuke Ebata, Tokyo-based correspondent for Jane's Defense Weekly.
He suggested that the exercises might have been motivated by opposition within the South Korean military to President Kim Dae Jung's policy of engaging the isolated North--or simply by the military's desire to get good press for being ever-vigilant in the face of a new and exotic threat.
The South Korean exercises came on the heels of an agreement North Korea made Tuesday to allow U.S. inspectors access to an underground site where the U.S. fears the North may be secretly attempting to restart the plutonium program it promised to scrap in 1993. The agreement on U.S. inspections in exchange for agricultural aid was welcomed by the South Korean government.
Defense analyst Jee Man Won in Seoul called Friday's anti-glider exercises "inappropriate" at a time when the world is much more worried about what might be going on in Kumchangri, the location of the underground facility.
Ebata said "it wouldn't be strange" for the North Koreans to have invested in gliders, because the Hezbollah group in southern Lebanon has successfully used the silent fliers to infiltrate Israeli-held territory at night.
However, while a terrorist or two might succeed in evading South Korean radar at night when winds are favorable, Ebata said, it would be virtually impossible to infiltrate enough agents for a coordinated attack using gliders or balloons--or even to make sure they arrived near their target.
Long before North Korea sent a missile flying over Japanese territory in August, the Stalinist regime was believed to be experimenting with low-tech methods for delivering chemical or biological weapons to South Korea and Japan.
For years, North Korean balloons bearing propaganda pamphlets drifted into South Korea, and some ended up in Japan. However, between April 1995 and November 1997, there were at least six separate incidents in which two new types of balloon, seemingly designed to deliver chemical weapons, arrived in Japan.
As many as 100 balloons were launched each time. One type of balloon carried a parachute holding two plastic containers, with a timer set for 10 hours, presumably the time it would take to travel from North Korea to Japan, the Sankei newspaper reported in 1996. The containers were designed to break upon impact with the ground, so that liquids carried inside would commingle, apparently to trigger a chemical reaction.
The second type of balloon carried a plastic bottle that began to leak fluid when the timer went off, the newspaper said in an article that featured pictures of the devices.
Japanese intelligence reportedly concluded that the balloons were North Korean military experiments aimed at intimidating Japan.
Chi Jung Nam of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.