North Korea's military fired a laser in March at two U.S. Army helicopters patrolling the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in what U.S. officials call a provocative action, The Washington Times has learned.
Two Apache attack helicopters were illuminated by lasers in early March by a weapon that had the characteristics of a Chinese laser gun, an indication that North Korea has deployed a new and potentially lethal weapon.
Lasers focus concentrated beams of light on a target and are used in some guidance systems. The Chinese laser gun, however, is a weapon that can cause eye damage at ranges up to three miles.
The incident was kept secret until defense officials disclosed it to The Times. It could not be learned whether the laser incident was discussed in periodic meetings between U.S., South Korean and North Korean military officials at the Panmunjom truce village.
The March laser illumination of the Apache helicopters occurred around the time that four North Korean jets intercepted a U.S. spy plane.
The jets, MiG-29s and MiG-23s, attempted to force the unarmed U.S. RC-135, flying 150 miles from the coast of the Korean Peninsula, to land in North Korea. The jets also threatened the plane with heat-seeking air-to-air missiles.
Both incidents occurred around the time the Pentagon announced it was sending 21 B-1 and B-52 bombers to Guam in response to the growing threat of North Korea and the latest crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear arms program.
Army Col. Samuel T. Taylor, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), said the helicopter incident occurred during a routine training mission. "Two USFK pilots were alerted by onboard laser-detecting equipment that laser systems may have illuminated their aircraft," Col. Taylor said in a statement. "Neither pilot was injured, and no equipment was damaged."
Col. Taylor said laser detections occur occasionally along the DMZ.
"North Korea's military employs both laser range-finding equipment and laser-designating equipment throughout its force," he said.
However, U.S. intelligence officials said an internal analysis of the incident suggests North Korea has acquired Chinese-made ZM-87 antipersonnel lasers.
"These are blinding laser weapons," said one official.
According to the officials, the two Apache attack helicopters were airborne about two miles south of the milewide DMZ when laser sensors on both aircraft went off.
The ZM-87 is the world's only laser device designed for use against troops. It can cause injuries to human eyes at a range of just under two miles, and with a special magnification device it can damage eyes at distances of up to three miles, military specialists say.
By contrast, lasers used to guide weapons and in range-finding equipment work at shorter distances than the Chinese laser weapon.
One intelligence official also said the North Koreans may have manufactured their own version of the Chinese laser gun.
North Korean defectors have identified the Mangyo Jewel Processing Factory, near the capital of Pyongyang, as a facility that produces lasers for precision-guided weapons, this official said.
The Apache pilots and crew were not wearing laser eye protection when the incident occurred.
Since the incident, air crews patrolling the DMZ have been required to wear eye protection intended to thwart any laser attacks.
Disclosure of the military incident comes as South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is set to meet President Bush tomorrow. The two leaders are expected to discuss the repositioning of some U.S. forces further south from the DMZ.
North Korea's official radio last week accused the United States of using laser weapons in Iraq, including arms that "blind the enemies' eyes and incapacitate weapons' sights."
U.S. military personnel have been injured in the past by laser attacks. In April 1997, a U.S. Navy intelligence officer, Lt. Jack Daly, and Canadian helicopter pilot Capt. Pat Barnes, suffered permanent eye damage from a laser fired by a Russian merchant ship that had been spying on U.S. nuclear submarines in Washington state's Strait of Juan de Fuca, north of Puget Sound.
Also, two Army helicopter crewmen suffered eye injuries from a laser while they were flying over Bosnia-Herzegovina in October 1998.
A classified report by the Army's National Ground Intelligence Center produced in 1999 warned that Serbia's armed forces might resort to laser warfare against U.S. pilots during the air war over Kosovo.
"The greatest potential threat of lasers being used as range finders, target designators, or even blinding weapons would come from the [Serbian] Special Operations Corps [63rd and 72nd brigades]," the report said.
The report noted that lasers weapons or lasers with weapons capabilities can be purchased from Russia, China and Armenia.
Lasers also can be effective in crippling air operations, the report stated. "The psychological effect of lasers on operational forces represents one of the most unpredictable aspects of the threat to air operations," it said.
In June, the Navy deployed new antilaser goggles that can be worn by pilots and air crew.
Adm. Thomas Fargo, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told reporters last month that the bomber deployment to Guam is to make sure "we have the proper deterrent posture in place."
On the North Korean aerial intercept, Adm. Fargo said: "We're taking what I would call prudent measures to ensure that those planes can complete their missions safely." He did not elaborate.
"We've seen some MiG activity over water, but I couldn't characterize it as being directed at our surveillance flights," Adm. Fargo said when asked about increased jet activity by the North Koreans.
Adm. Fargo said U.S. military capabilities to deal with North Korea have vastly improved over the past 15 years. As a result, the military is considering an adjustment in the positioning of U.S. forces on the peninsula.