Inter-Korean military agreement ‘dead’ after North Korean sabre-rattling

But Seoul terminating agreement first will only give Pyongyang an excuse to justify more military provocations, experts warn.

Jo He-rim

Jo He-rim

The Korea Herald


South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo and North Korean Minister of the People’s Armed Forces No Kwang-chol stand before reporters after signing the Comprehensive Military Agreement on Sept. 19, 2018. (Yonhap)

November 4, 2022

SEOUL – In an unprecedented level of saber-rattling this week, North Korea has launched over two dozen ballistic missiles into the East and Yellow seas, and also fired some 100 artillery shots, violating a symbolic inter-Korean military agreement, again.

With the North’s rising hostility and disregard for the 2018 Comprehensive Military agreement, calls are rising for the South to break off the inter-Korean pact that has effectively been invalidated.

At the same time, experts warn that Seoul should think carefully about making the first move to scrap the pact, as it would only give Pyongyang an excuse to justify more military provocations.

Peace progress?

Once hailed as an accomplishment of the peace efforts by the then liberal Moon Jae-in administration, experts The Korea Herald spoke to said the Sept. 19 military agreement was now “in name only” thanks to multiple violations by the North.

The Comprehensive Military agreement was signed by the defense chiefs of the two Koreas on Sept. 19, 2018, in Pyongyang. Created as a sub-agreement to the Pyongyang Joint Declaration presented during the summit between the then South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the CMA’s stated purpose is to prevent skirmishes between the two Koreas.

Under the military pact, the two Koreas set up “buffer zones” around the border areas on land, air and sea to ban all live-fire artillery drills and field training exercises at various levels within 5 kilometers of the Military Demarcation Line. “No Fly Zones” were designated to prevent aircraft from flying too close to the border.

Guard posts close to the border were removed, and the Joint Security Area in the border village of Panmunjom was completely disarmed under the agreement. The agreement did not cover missile launches.

‘Merely nominal’

Despite some progress made from both sides, the viability of the agreement was soon in question.

Over a year after the pact was established, North Korea carried out artillery firing drills on Changrin Islet, just north of the Northern Limit Line in November 2019.

North Korean soldiers also shot at a South Korean guard post in an apparent violation in May 2020. At that time, the South Korean military fired back, twice.

In the latest breach of the agreement, North Korea fired about 100 artillery shells Wednesday, with the shells falling inside the maritime buffer zone installed by the Sept. 19 military agreement.

On the same day, North Korea launched more than two dozen ballistic missiles, the largest-ever barrage in a single day. One of them also flew across the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime inter-Korean border for the first time since the two Koreas separated after the 1950-1953 Korean War.

On Thursday, North Korea fired one intercontinental ballistic missile, which was observed to have failed in flight, and two short-range missiles into the East Sea as of the afternoon.

Pyongyang has fired hundreds of artillery shots on previous occasions — 170 shots on Oct. 14 and 100 shells on Oct. 19 — to break the military accord multiple times.

Terminating the agreement

While Seoul has lodged strong protests each time Pyongyang has violated the agreement, the North Korean regime has remained unresponsive. It also avoids mentioning about the inter-Korean military agreement, while continuing to carry out military activities threatening the South.

In October, a presidential office said whether or not the agreement will be maintained is “up to the attitude of North Korea.”

Under the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act, the president may suspend all or part of effects of the South-North Korean agreement with an approval from the National Assembly for a fixed period, when deemed necessary for national security among other reasons.

“The Sept. 19 military agreement has obviously become invalid. Agreements between countries are nullified when it is violated by one side unilaterally,” Park Won-gon, a professor in the department of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University said.

“But neither South and North Korea are declaring the end of the agreement. North Korea would want South Korea to make the move first, so that it can blame Seoul for the failure of the agreement.”

So if the South makes the first move to scrap the inter-Korean agreement, Pyongyang will likely make Seoul liable and use it as an excuse to justify all of its military activities threatening to Seoul, Park explained.

In case North Korea carries out its seventh nuclear test, South Korea may declare a temporary suspension of the military agreement, completely discarding that fact that it may play unfavorably for the South, Park added.

Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul, agreed the inter-Korean military agreement had become a “mere scrap of paper.”

But North Korea would likely claim that Seoul is the one to violate the inter-Korean military agreement first, as it perceives South Korea’s joint military drills with the United States as a grave military threat to its security — albeit such joint military exercises are not included in the agreement.

“When we have the military agreement in place, we can use it to pressure the North for its military provocation. But without it, skirmishes could occur to easily develop into bigger incidents,” Lim said.

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