07.12.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Is the inter-Korean military agreement short-lived?

Is the inter-Korean military agreement short-lived?

On November 1, 2018, the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA), which was signed on September 19 in Pyongyang by South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo and North Korean Defense Minister No Kwang Chol entered into force. The document’s full title is Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, Exchanges, and Cooperation, known as the “Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain” or Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA).

On April 27, the document was adopted as part of the implementation of the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, which called for an end to “hostile actions” against each other and the elimination of the “danger of war.” It focused on reducing military tensions between North and South Korea alongside the Line of Contact and potential arms control in the future, preventing accidental clashes, and building mutual trust.

According to the agreement, a 10-kilometer buffer zone was established along the land border, prohibiting artillery firing and military exercises at regiment level and above. What the agreement called for was the removal of landmines, guard posts, weapons, and disarming personnel in the Joint Security Area (JSA) on either side of the border between North and South Korea. The same 80 km wide buffer zones have been established at maritime borders to avoid collisions between warships. Artillery firing and naval exercises were prohibited in these areas. In the airspace above the demilitarized zone, no-fly zones have been imposed in which the operation of drones, helicopters and other aircraft is forbidden.

According South Korea’s Defense White Paper, Pyongyang violated the agreement 17 times by the end of the previous year, or 15 times in just that one year. It’s true that they don’t specify the specifics of the infractions because they are given various consequences. Neither the targeting of buffer zones during drills nor Pyongyang’s efforts to advance conventional weapons in general or its development of nuclear missile capabilities constitute their remilitarization. So even the firing on the guard post in 2020 was an unintended accident, even though both sides fired a couple hundred bullets.

What conservative media and politicians speculate is that with the development of the DPRK’s missile capabilities from 2018 to 2023, “the entire region of South Korea is within range of the North’s tactical nuclear weapons,” and therefore buffer zones are meaningless. This is not the case because they insure against accidental confrontations, provocations and potential “war over a rabbit”.

The agreement would only be obviously broken by a North Korean surveillance UAV operation in December 2022. The ROK retaliated by conducting its own raid, which was, to be honest, also outside the terms of the agreement, so the parties made a trade-off. But it came about when President Yoon Suk-yeol sent an order to officials in early 2023 to think about suspending the agreement in the event that North Korea invaded the South again.

But consider not only conservative rhetoric, let’s also consider public fears. According to a poll by Opinion Research Justice published on October 19, 2023, 48.3% of respondents thought it plausible that the North would launch a surprise attack, while 47.4% thought it was doubtful or impossible. In contrast to the findings of the two previous surveys, which indicated 37% in 2017 and 42.7% in 2020, the percentage of people who are worried about war is higher this time around. While in another poll conducted on the same day, 48.3 percent of those surveyed said Seoul should keep the CMA, while 37.4 percent said it should be suspended or canceled.

The speculation about denouncing the agreement intensified after the October conflict in the Middle East began. Although the South Korean experts began to actively try on the Hamas attack of October 7, 2023 “on themselves,” taking into account the fact that theoretically the DPRK may well organize something similar. But its artillery and missile power is an order of magnitude better than Hamas’s: about 700 long-range artillery pieces, with 300+ of them capable of shelling “greater Seoul,” where about half the country’s population lives.

Yet here there was talk of the CMA no-fly and buffer zones preventing effective intelligence and surveillance, with newly appointed Defense Minister Shin Won-sik being the chief defender of this position. A retired South Korean army lieutenant general said as early as September 25, being a candidate for the position, that the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) should be abolished because it was “a wrong accord that has increased our military’s vulnerability… As there are many areas of military vulnerability that come from the September 19 military agreement, such as military combat power and operation capabilities, I believe it must be scrapped.”

Shin argued in favor of canceling the agreement, making the following arguments:

– DPRK’s deteriorating surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, as well as limitations on close-range precision strikes due to the unmanned zone;

– the five north-western islands and Deokjeok Island isolated through the establishment of an unmanned zone and buffer land and sea areas;

– having a threat to the 26 million people living in the metropolitan area;

– the restrictions on firearms training and joint exercises.

On October 10, Shin Won-sik once again said that the ROK is under a far greater threat than Israel and the only way to respond is through intelligence and surveillance. In the meantime, the no-fly zone established along the border makes it impossible to monitor preparations for North Korean provocations. Palestinian territory could have suffered fewer casualties from the recent Hamas attack if Israel had maintained 24-hour surveillance of Palestinian territory by unmanned aerial vehicles, the minister added.

During his visit to a Marine unit on Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea on October 23, Shin Won-sik repeated his call for the suspension of the agreement: “I understand that there are considerable difficulties in maintaining a combat readiness posture as firing drills of major weapons have been halted in the northwestern islands.”

During a parliament session on October 27, Shin Won-sik stated that North Korea had broken the Comprehensive Military Agreement thousands of times. He noted that artillery pieces and bunkers’ portholes were left open. Comment is unnecessary. Back then, Shin Won-sik said the government was discussing a possible suspension of the document and emphasized Washington’s support for Seoul on the issue.

During his meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on November 13, Shin Won-sik outlined Seoul’s stance. Austin confirmed that he and Shin had exchanged their views concerning the matter and “agreed to continue close consultations in the future.”

Different military leaders who hold positions under the conservatives support Shin. On October 12, 2023, Republic of Korea Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Kim Seung-kyum stated during a parliamentary inspection that the CMA restricts South Korea’s surveillance of North Korea. “Due to no-fly zones set under the military agreement, our surveillance range is restricted in terms of time and space.”

On October 24, Marine Corps Commandant Lt. Gen. Kim Gye-hwan said that live-fire drills on border islands in the Yellow Sea need to be resumed to enhance military vigilance against North Korean provocations, as they have been suspended following the 2018 inter-Korean military agreement. “Inland drills pose several problems due to the relatively short range, which in turn affects our readiness posture.”

On November 1, Adm. Kim Myung-soo, nominee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) chairman, said that the CMA poses limitations to the South Korean military. On Novomber 15, Adm. Kim Myung-soo, the nominee to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), explained that the CMA sets restrictions on the South Korean military’s surveillance of North Korea and live-fire drills near the maritime border. Kim stated that the agreement’s no-fly zones need to be adjusted in order to account for the potential of a Pyongyang surprise assault, given the South’s pronounced advantage over the North in information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

While taking a more cautious approach, the Ministry of Unification generally agrees with its colleagues. On the one hand, the new minister Kim Yung-ho has made it clear time and time again that the September 19 agreement hurts South Korea since it unnecessarily limits and impedes the country’s intelligence resources. However, he made it clear that a thorough assessment of the security situation should be conducted before deciding to suspend it.

Kim In-ae, vice spokesperson for the unification ministry, stated in a briefing on September 15 that North Korea’s adherence to the inter-Korean military agreement from September 19, 2018, is necessary for its preservation.  While calling Shin Won-sik’s comments inadmissible, Kim In-ae quickly pointed out that bilateral agreements should be respected by both the North and the South, and that it is untenable for one side to honor them alone.

As Kim Yung-ho noted on October 11, the CMA was virtually nullified by Pyongyang “even though North Korea did not announce it (the termination of the agreement), its actions have undeniably violated its spirit.” Kim further stated that intelligence capabilities would be essential for South Korea’s armed forces to be prepared for an attack from the North.

However, South Korea must fully evaluate the security situation before determining whether to suspend the agreement. Although Kim stated that “some elements of the agreement could work to South Korea’s disadvantage, as it excessively limits the operation of our surveillance assets,” the government has not yet made a decision on whether to suspend or end the agreement, stating that a National Security Council meeting would be a prudent place to discuss the issue.

Even if Pyongyang does not infringe on South Korean land, the Ministry of Unification warned on October 12, 2023, that the government might suspend the agreement based on the security circumstances. Under condition of anonymity, a ministry official told reporters, “After comprehensively taking into account the security situation, the government would consider suspending the CMA if it judges such a move is necessary for national security.”

Kim Yung-ho said in a media interview on October 18 that “if the North stages grave provocations, we need to actively review the inter-Korean military agreement.” To emphasize this point, Kim was questioned on October 27 about what “grave provocations” entail, but he refused to provide an example. If a nuclear test were to occur in North Korea, would that constitute a grave provocation. Kim responded, that “it will be considered after the test.”

The CMA issue has also become another subject of fierce dispute and disagreement between the ruling People Power Party and the opposition Democratic Party.  Conservatives are in favor of suspending the accord or revising it. Yun Jae-ok, the floor leader of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) said on October 13, “Hamas succeeded in its surprise attack due to Israel’s surveillance and reconnaissance gaps… There can hardly be any disagreement on the point that we should no longer leave the security vacuum and diplomatic restrictions caused by the September 19 military agreement as they are.”

On the other hand, the latter highlight its efficacy and value in averting conflicts across borders. While the agreement has nonetheless resulted in a notable decrease in maritime conflicts close to the Northern Boundary Line in the Yellow Sea—the de facto maritime boundary—during the crab fishing seasons, several of their representatives expressed concern about the prospect of terminating the pact.

Korea Times quoted Rep. Park Byeong-seug, lawmaker of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), as stating: “If we suspend or revoke the agreement, it would give an excuse for another provocation by North Korea.” The Democrats see the CMA as a reassurance that reduces the risks of catastrophic miscalculations and rising tensions for both sides.

Opinions from experts differ too. According to Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, the CMA has played a role in providing some level of stability. “In a situation where inter-Korean dialogue isn’t taking place, if the agreement is scrapped, the possibility for accidental collision will become bigger.” In his opinion, “if we first announce the termination of the agreement, there are many risks involved. It would be better for the government to urge North Korea to honor the agreement while leaving room for suspension.“

Of particular note has been the position of Chun In-Bum, former commander of the ROK Special Warfare Command, who believes that “whether one trusts North Korea or not, a stable DMZ and Northern Limit Line (NLL) was an imperative for a “peace process” to proceed. It is very unfortunate that the hoped-for peace regime was not achieved, but supporters still point to the fact that there were no significant armed clashes along the DMZ and the NLL in this time period.”

Therefore, General Chin believes that although “North Korea’s actions are disappointing, to say the least,” the abandonment of Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) must happen in response to a real, “forced” violation of the agreement.

Also, there are already a lot of tensions on the Korean peninsula. Rejecting the CMA for a fabricated cause would potentially undermine South Korea’s moral standing and make it appear like the originator of a future provocation. Ultimately, the CMA is not the root cause of the military’s capabilities but it is readiness. COVID-19 gave an excuse to not train as well. The “peace” mood created by the CMA “caused most mediocre commanders to neglect training”. Finally, it was “a sudden focus on human rights in the military.” Korean commanders are not used to explaining to a person, who doesn’t want to be in uniform in the first place, why he has to stand guard duty in the cold. As a result, “the issue of renouncing the CMA can be dealt with later. The real issue is training and equipping the Army and gaining public support.”

Separately note, that the USA is not pushing openly. The US Department of Defense declined to comment on the South Korean debate. When asked on November 7 if the inter-Korean military agreement should be suspended for security reasons in the Republic of Korea, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh informed reporters that official Seoul would have the final say on the matter.

In addition, there are concerns over the denunciation procedure. According to the opposition media, the agreement should be denounced by the National Assembly, which is dominated by the Democratic Party. They argue that the agreement contributes to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and that suspending it would be a risky move that would lead North Korea to issue new threats against Seoul.

Under the inter-Korean relations development act, South Korea can suspend agreements with North Korea if it is deemed necessary for national security and other reasons. As the deal took effect without parliamentary ratification (by the way, because of the Conservatives’ attitude), its suspension does not require parliamentary approval.

In light of this, the President has the authority to halt an inter-Korean agreement if there has been a substantial shift in ties between the two Koreas or if it is thought to be essential for maintaining public welfare, national security, or order when the agreement was made without the National Assembly’s approval.

The suspension process of the agreement is quite straightforward and involves notifying North Korea and the State Council of the necessary decision. In this case, the Ministry of Unification has a role in determining whether a suspension is required because it is the minister of unification designated as the President’s assistant in carrying out tasks pertaining to inter-Korean accords.

However, it looks like the CMA won’t last long. A representative for the ROK presidential administration stated on November 14 that the CMA significantly restricts the ROK armed forces’ ability to defend themselves, including by impeding their ability to gather intelligence on the North. The spokesperson did not completely rule out the possibility of the agreement being partially annulled. “The government will monitor North Korea’s actions and take appropriate action,” he added.  On the same day, November 14, Yonhap News Agency sources claimed that South Korea was considering partially suspending a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement as a precautionary measure against North Korean provocations in case it made a third attempt to launch a spy satellite. According to reports, the South Korean military has previously submitted a recommendation to the country’s leadership, and the matter is currently being debated at the National Security Council level.

In this case, we must wait for the satellite, the delay of which will be discussed in the next article. And bemoan the impending decision, for the security quandary in this context leads to a perilous line.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Related articles: