(Yonhap Feature) S. Korean border troops harness AI-powered surveillance tech against N.K. threats

Perched atop a border hill in the center of the Korean Peninsula, a South Korean military outpost overlooks rugged North Korean terrain concealed by heavy morning fog and early summer foliage. Only a few kilometers away from the North's nearest guard post, the front-line unit stands surrounded by unfettered wilderness and razor-wire fences that run along the southern tip of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which has separated the two Koreas since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. Despite its isolation from civilization, the outpost is at the forefront of the military's adoption of advanced technologies, serving as a test ground for AI-powered systems to better monitor growing North Korean threats. The Hansan Battalion of the Army's 5th Infantry Division demonstrated its technology-driven border operations in a media tour Wednesday in Yeoncheon County, 61 kilometers north of Seoul, amid heightened tensions from recent North Korean efforts to reinforce their military presence in the 4-km-wide buffer zone. While the North's guard posts were barely visible to the naked eye at the battalion's observation post due to the thick fog, the structures appeared as clear as day on surveillance monitors at the unit's command center thanks to its advanced thermal observation system. As a pilot program, the unit incorporates AI technology into established thermal observation devices to analyze video footage in real time and recognize humans and wildlife, such as deer and boar. Although breaches at the heavily guarded border are rare, a North Korean soldier defected through one of the battalion's guard posts in 2017, highlighting the need for constant vigilance. The system currently assists soldiers in analyzing North Korean border activity, and the Army expects the AI's recognition abilities to get even better with improvements to algorithms and as its training data set expands. To bolster border surveillance, the unit operates another trial system that utilizes a robot camera that swiftly tr avels along a rail fence to monitor hilly areas that take time for troops to arrive on foot. Instead of the conventional surveillance cameras fixed in certain locations, the system is able to move and change positions to reduce blind spots, while also being able to detect people with AI technology. The AI-powered push comes as South Korea last year unveiled the basic plan for Defense Innovation 4.0 -- an initiative to employ technologies to build a smarter military and address concerns of troop shortages due to the country's chronic low birth rate. The trial programs are designed to possibly reduce labor-intensive military roles, as the country faces a record low number of expected births, which dwindled to 0.72 last year, far below the 2.1 births per woman needed to maintain a stable population. In January, the state arms procurement agency announced plans to deploy AI-based surveillance systems for eastern front-line and coastal units by the end of this year. The demonstration also took place as the No rth has been pressing ahead with bolstering military activities at the border. Since Pyongyang scrapped a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement last November, it has restored its destroyed guard posts inside the DMZ. The two Koreas had dismantled or disarmed 11 DMZ guard posts each under the deal. The North has also installed mines on rare roads connecting the two Koreas and removed streetlights in apparent efforts to completely cut off ties with its southern neighbor. In January, the North's leader Kim Jong-un labeled South Korea as an "invariable principal enemy," scrapping a decadeslong policy of seeking unification with the South. Officials at the front-line unit declined to comment on North Korean border activities and its operations inside the DMZ, citing operational security. The military has so far offered few details on such activities, although efforts to rebuild its demolished guard posts are known to be under way. Despite increasing threats from North Korea, the Hansan Battalion appeared read y to respond to any provocation from the North as it carried out defense operations backed by advanced technologies. "Through thorough border operations and combat preparations, we will retaliate against (the enemy) immediately, strongly and until the end," Lt. Col. Son Yeong-ju, commander of the battalion, said.