Around 60,000 security forces, interceptor drones deployed to protect Pyeongchang Olympics

Key Points
  • Massive security at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will include interceptor drones with nets to capture rogue drones.
  • There also is technology to monitor the air for possible chemical attacks and aircraft equipped with face recognition scanners like a "hawk's eye."
  • There's been concern North Korea or terrorists could disrupt the games.
  • About 60,000 security personnel are expected to protect the games plus thousands of special operations forces will be on standby.
Drone-catching drones are protecting the Winter Olympics
Drone-catching drones are protecting the Winter Olympics

Security measures to protect the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics starting Friday are expected to be massive with about 60,000 personnel mobilized daily in South Korea to guard against terror attacks and teams armed with anti-drone technology to enforce airspace.

The protections include "drone-catching drones" with the capability to drop nets over suspicious unmanned aerial vehicles that enter unauthorized areas, South Korea's Hankyoreh daily newspaper reported last week. It also said advanced drone detection radar developed in South Korea will be used during the games along with signal-jamming guns that can take control of offending drones and land them.

There also are sensor systems to "sniff" and detect for various chemical warfare agents and explosive threats, a security official confirmed to CNBC. The official was cautious about discussing specifics about the security gear but indicated there also will be thousands of special operations forces from the U.S. and South Korea on standby in case they are needed.

"We have been in contact with local and international authorities and, in none of the discussions, has anybody expressed any doubt about the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang," said the International Olympic Committee in a statement to CNBC.

The demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas is located just 50 miles north of Pyeongchang, the resort town hosting the ski, snowboard and sliding events for the Winter Games. Gangneung, the South Korean coastal town hosting the figure skating, curling and ice hockey events, is near where a North Korean spy submarine went aground in 1996 and triggered a bloody manhunt for a group of infiltrators.

A man passes through a security check as a North Korean delegation of 32 people, including 10 athletes of North Korean Olympic team, arrives at the Gangneung Olympic Village of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games 2018, in Gangneung, South Korea, February 1, 2018.
Jeon Heon-Kyun | Reuters

Going back to the 1980s, there is a history of galling and terrifying acts by North Korea sometimes before or during South Korean international sporting events, including blowing up a South Korean passenger jet midair with 115 people aboard in 1987. Another major incident was the 2002 North Korean attack on a Republic of Korea (or ROK) patrol boat in the Yellow Sea, which killed South Korean sailors and overshadowed the World Cup tournament co-hosted that year by the South.

"Certainly, the South Koreans were really nervous at the end of 2017 about some kind of North Korean provocation," said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for the Korean peninsula and national security specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "You look back on the 1987 downing of a South Korean passenger airliner by North Korea, in part to disrupt the 1988 Seoul Olympics."

ROK authorities have been working with U.S. security planners for almost two years to develop an extensive plan to secure the games and to be prepared for possible attacks or other serious threats, including from South Korean extremists. The security is designed to protect around 3,000 athletes coming to the Olympics from 92 participating nations along with their national delegations, thousands of volunteers and up to 100,000 spectators expected daily.

There have been anti-terror drills in recent months by South Korean police and soldiers to prepare for possible attacks, including exercises at an airport in Seoul last week. Other exercises have been held closer to Olympic venues.

"The ROK [or South Korean] government is extremely well-equipped and has prepared extensively for the games, and planned for possible contingencies," said Army Col. Chad Carroll, spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea. "However, if they request our assistance, we stand ready to help in any way we can."

The Winter Games also are expected to draw more than two dozen heads of state and a large delegation from the United States led by Vice President Mike Pence.

"Any citizen of the United States traveling to the 2018 Winter Games can rest assured that the Republic of Korea has a comprehensive security system in place and that the United States Government is supporting our ally in that regard," Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of State told reporters last week. "The Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service is working closely with South Korean law enforcement and security agencies in the lead-up to the Game."

There is hope the North Korean leader won't order a provocation during the Winter Olympics given the communist regime agreed last month to send a delegation to Pyeongchang, including athletes who will compete in five sports. North Korean athletes also are expected to march together for the opening ceremony under one flag with South Koreans and have a unified women's ice hockey team at the games.

"The fact that the North Koreans have kind of reached a sort of rapprochement over the Winter Olympics is a certainly a good sign for Olympics security," said Ben West, a senior analyst at Stratfor Threat Lens, a security and threat analysis unit of the Texas-based advisory firm. "It dramatically reduces the incentive for North Korea to cause any kind of major disruptions."

Cyberattack threat

That said, West said "less traceable cyberactivity" by the North Koreans still is a possibility. He said the regime "can pull off cyberattacks without necessarily having to own up to them."

Indeed, North Korea also has showed it has capability to carry out massive cyberattacks, including stealing virtual currencies such a bitcoin or using computer worms such as the so-called WannaCry attack. Also, some experts believe North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could possibly be provoked to order a cyberattack if he felt he was being severely disrespected or to embarrass South Korea.

Last month, activists in Seoul burned pictures of the North Korean leader and the regime's flag during the visit by a North Korean entertainer. That led the Korean Central News Agency, the North's propaganda mouthpiece, to lash out that the action was done by "a despicable group of gangsters."

According to Strafor, North Korea isn't the only country that might try a cyberattack timed to the Winter Olympic.

"One actor to watch carefully is going to be Russia," said the Stratfor's West.

In December, the International Olympic Committee took action against the Russian team for a state-backed "manipulation of the anti-doping rules" and effectively limited their activities in the Winter Olympics. Russian-backed hackers have previously targeted the IOC, the anti-doping agency as well as American and European sporting agencies — all in an attempt "to undermine the global case to kind of ostracize Russia in sporting events because of their involvement in doping," according to West.

Meantime, North Korea is sending its ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, to attend the opening ceremony of the games, the reclusive government's state-run news agency announced Monday. The 90-year-old is sometimes described as the No. 2 official since he heads North Korea's parliament.

Amid signs of inter-Korean cooperation during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics there also are events showing their frosty relationship. Specifically, the North Koreans planned a large military parade in Pyongyang the day before the Winter Games kick off and are expected to trot out the latest ballistic missiles and other menacing weapons.

Defense analysts say there remains a risk of a nuclear or missile test during the games but add that the likelihood has dimmed with Pyongyang now participating in the Winter Olympics.

However, analysts say the chance of a provocation taking place will increase after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. That's because the two big joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, the so-called Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, are scheduled to start at the conclusion of the Olympics. The annual drills, which North Korea has seen over the years as a war rehearsal, involve navy ships, tanks and aircraft as well as live-fire exercises and tens of thousands of troops.

The last time North Korea is believed to have tested a ballistic missile was in late November when it launched a Hwasong-15, an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking all of the U.S. mainland, according to experts. Last year, the North Koreans threatened a missile strike near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam and also warned they might explode a hydrogen weapon in the atmosphere over the Pacific.

One of the ballistic missile defenses the U.S. installed in South Korea and Guam is the THAAD anti-missile defense system. The North Koreans sent a drone into South Korea last year to get pictures of the THAAD battery and gather intelligence. The North's drones also have taken images of sensitive government buildings in Seoul.

"The key problem has been detecting the drones," said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense researcher at the Rand Corp. think tank in California. "South Korea knows that for probably a decade their airspace has been regularly penetrated by North Korean drones."

Added Bennett, "The South Koreans haven't noticed them, shot them down or intercepted them. They even had a drone fly over their Blue House, the counterpart to the U.S. White House, and take pictures. They only found out about it because the drone crashed on its way back to North Korea — and they got the film."

'Dronebot' team

South Korea's Yonhap news agency disclosed in December that the country's army would create a "dronebot" team in 2018 that could be "a game changer in warfare." It followed a report last March by the news agency that the North Korean military already had about 1,000 drones.

In recent years, terrorists such as ISIS have shown the ability to weaponize drones with grenade-type explosives. Also, the North Koreans have attack drones capable of unleashing biological and chemical weapons, according to Japanese newspaper Sekai Nippo. The paper cited information from a North Korean defector, formerly in the regime's air force, who claimed Pyongyang had been working on the technology since the 1990s.

Finally, security at the games also includes tactical aircraft equipped with face recognition scanners that detect potential terrorist threats as well as aerial surveillance like a "hawk's eye" available to monitor ground activity from a height of up to 200 meters, or nearly 660 feet, according to the Hankyoreh paper.

It added that the aircraft will provide authorities with an around-the-clock CCTV in the sky and "a real-time perspective on even the smallest visitor activities in and around the venues."

"If the intelligent CCTV picks up a threat, agents at the scene will be deployed immediately to bring it under control," an unidentified Pyeongchang Olympics official told the South Korean paper.

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the U.S. broadcast rights holder to all Summer and Winter Games through the year 2032.