In a recent display of technological prowess, North Korea showcased two new drone models that bear a striking resemblance to American-manufactured drones at the Weapons and Equipment Exhibition 2023. The unveiling, attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, revealed the “Morning Star-4” and “Morning Star-9” drones, analogous to the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper, respectively.

The Designed Parallels

The uncanny similarity in the designations of the North Korean—officially Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—drones to their U.S. counterparts, RQ-4 and MQ-9, raised eyebrows in the global defense community.

Satellite images from June initially spotted the two drones, with the Global Hawk-type drone resembling the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk and its variants in appearance and size. With an approximate wingspan of 115 feet (35 meters), this drone is likely geared for high-altitude, extended-distance flights.

Side-by-side comparison of North Korea’s Morning Star-9 (upper) vs. General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (lower) / Image source: Twitter

The Reaper-type drone, displayed alongside the Global Hawk lookalike, featured a smaller wingspan and was showcased with various missiles, including a Hellfire-like weapon. However, specifics about the drones’ capabilities and missions remain undisclosed, adding to the intrigue surrounding their true potential.

Side-by-side comparison of North Korea’s Morning Star-4 (background) vs. Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk (lower left) / Image source: Twitter, DVIDS

NK Drones: Questioning the Capability

The doubts surrounding the true capabilities of North Korea’s Morning Star-4 and Morning Star-9 drones stem from the complexity of modern drone technology. While Pyongyang may have successfully replicated the airframe of American drones, the advanced sensors, software, and even communication systems that provide the U.S. models with their edge are not easily obtainable due to strict export controls.

In an interview, Stephen Pendergast, a former Systems Engineer at General Atomics ASI, explains that the RQ-4 and MQ-9 drones have sophisticated sensor packages that contribute significantly to their performance and effectiveness. These sensor packages and advanced software and communication systems are closely guarded technologies and are unlikely to be available to North Korea through conventional channels.