The United States military will use long-range surveillance drones to spy on North Korea next year, U.S. government officials announced this week.
Beginning next spring, the Air Force will fly several drones near North Korean borders to gather intelligence data on the reclusive country, where an estimated 24 million people live under oppression, sealed off from the rest of the world.
The unarmed Global Hawk drones will fly out of an undetermined base in Japan, according to The Washington Post.
U.S. government officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, met with Japanese representatives this week to finalize the military agreement. Both sides hope the surveillance missions will enhance understanding of the threat posed by North Korea. [7 Strange Cultural Facts About North Korea]
Despite repeated warnings and tough U.N. sanctions, North Korea continues to pursue its nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs. Earlier this year, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, and recent intelligence analyses suggest the country has restarted its main nuclear complex, a Soviet-era reactor used to produce plutonium for atomic bombs.
Global Hawk drones are capable of flying at altitudes of more than 60,000 feet (18,300 meters), and are the Air Force's most advanced surveillance vehicles. The drones also boast impressive aerial endurance, and can perform flights that last more than 28 hours.
The planes are equipped with a range of instruments, including infrared sensors and satellite communications systems. The RQ-4 Global Hawk, the biggest drone in the U.S. Air Force fleet, is capable of surveying 40,000 square miles (103,000 square kilometers) of ground in one day.
The Air Force currently has Global Hawk drones stationed in Guam, in the western Pacific Ocean, and in the Persian Gulf. This week's agreement is the first time the Pentagon has obtained rights to operate drones from bases in Northeast Asia, reported the Post.
American drones previously conducted flights over Japan in 2011 to monitor the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which suffered a partial meltdown following the region's devastating earthquake and tsunami that claimed nearly 16,000 lives.
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Denise Chow was the assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. Before joining the Live Science team in 2013, she spent two years as a staff writer for Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.