27.12.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

North Korea launches a satellite, causing an escalation in tensions Part Four: The end of the Inter-Korean military agreement

NEO wrote about the possible termination of the inter-Korean military agreement (CMA, Comprehensive Military Agreement ) quite recently, mentioning that its zeroing will take place after the launch of the DPRK satellite. And so it happened.

Recall that even before the launch, the Administration of the President of South Korea assumed that the CMA “could be suspended in the event North Korea goes ahead with its planned space rocket launch.” Conservative media wrote that “Suspending the military agreement is unavoidable” and in case of “new provocations,” “South Korea must instantly invalidate the no-fly zone above the Military Demarcation Line the Moon administration agreed to … The abnormality must be corrected.”

Therefore, it is not surprising that Seoul partially suspended the CMA on November 22. In accordance with the decision taken at an extraordinary meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, the South Korean side suspended the third paragraph of the first article of the agreement, which prohibited intelligence activities along the inter-Korean border line.

Pyongyang was blamed. According to the head of government, “North Korea clearly demonstrates that it has no desire to comply with the military agreement of September 19, designed to reduce military tensions on the Korean peninsula and strengthen trust.”

On the “South Side,” the decision was approved, as fortunately Seoul notified the interested countries of its decision. On November 22, the US State Department said the United States viewed the partial suspension of CMA as a “prudent” and “restrained” response to repeated violations by North Korea. On November 23, Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said that South Korea’s partial suspension of the 2018 agreement on reducing inter-Korean tensions after the North launched a spy satellite was a “proportionate response” and a “minimal defensive measure.”

In turn, the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, on November 22 negatively commented on Seoul’s decision to suspend the agreement, which plays an important role in preventing armed incidents in the area of the military demarcation line. Its suspension is fraught with escalating into a large-scale conflict, and in this regard, the steps of the South Korean side “can only be regretted,” she stressed.

The North responded to the partial suspension of CMA by the South by fully suspending it. On November 23, the Ministry of Defense of the DPRK issued a statement, according to which “elements of the so-called Republic of Korea in no case can get rid of responsibility for the cancellation of the Agreement in the military sphere between the North and the South and will pay more dearly for it.” The point is simple: our launch of a reconnaissance satellite “is a measure corresponding to the right to self-defense for strict and accurate monitoring of all military actions of enemies around the Korean peninsula, which are becoming alarming every day, for a consistent response to them, and the use of a legitimate and fair right. However, the pack of military-political gangsters of the “Republic of Korea” reveals extreme confrontational hysteria, being the first to shout that the use of the DPRK’s legitimate right is a violation of the UN “resolution” and an “illegal act.” It is precisely because of their machinations that the CMA has become an empty piece of paper, and in response to their provocations, our response is as follows. First, “from now on, our army will not be limited by the September 19 Agreement in the military sphere between the North and the South.” Secondly, everything that was suspended in accordance with the CMA will be restored. “We will reverse the military steps taken to prevent military tensions and possible clashes in all areas, including land, sea and air, and deploy more powerful armed forces and new types of military equipment in regions close to the military demarcation line.” Thirdly, “in the event of an irreversible clash between the North and the South, the elements of the “Republic of Korea” will bear full responsibility for this.” All of this was easily predicted.

The Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea sharply condemned North Korea’s statement, promising to develop retaliatory measures: “Once again, we strictly warn North Korea for distorting facts and shifting blame when they are wrong… The Ministry of Defense and our military will closely monitor North Korea’s actions and develop retaliatory measures to protect our people.”

The Ministry of Unification also condemned the North’s statement as far-fetched: “Seoul’s partial suspension of the military agreement is a fair measure of self-defense that can be taken at least at a time when the North is constantly violating the agreement and continues its nuclear and missile threats and provocations against us.”

The leader of the ruling People Power Party, Kim Gi-hyeon, moreover said that if the North continues to undertake provocations, South Korea may consider the possibility of a complete termination of the CMA. “There are no reasons for us to hold onto that agreement as if it was a sacred object,” Kim said during a meeting with the party leadership. “”If one side repeatedly violates it, that agreement is nothing more than a piece of tissue.”

There have also been voices against. The conservative but oppositional (to Yoon Suk-yeol) Korea Times published an article with the subtitle “Koreas should calm down, seek exit strategy,” and, according to the author, “ripping up the inter-Korean military accord will remove the last safety device. Koreans must think about who will benefit most from their return to seven decades ago,” and pigeons must defeat hawks.

The Democrats’ reaction boiled down to the thesis “we condemn the DPRK, but do not forget to kick Yoon Suk-yeol, who is still more to blame.” On November 24, opposition leader Lee Jae-myung “strongly condemned” the termination of the CMA, however, “the government should not make the mistake of killing a cow while trying to fix its horn, by pulling out the safety pin of peace, just to teach the North a bitter lesson.” Moreover, it turns out that Russia could have decided to help with the North’s satellite launch due to Seoul’s hostile stance on Moscow. In response, the ruling party, through the mouth of MP Park Jeong-ha, asked whether the Democratic party “is a political party of South Korea or is (a party) speaking for North Korea.”

Moscow did not stand aside: Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova noted that Pyongyang’s decision followed in response to Seoul’s partial suspension of the 2018 Military Agreement under the pretext of the DPRK launching a reconnaissance satellite on November 21. She stressed that, along with the Armistice Agreement of 1953, the CMA “plays an important role in maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula and preventing armed incidents in the area of the demilitarized zone, fraught with escalating into a large-scale conflict. Moscow is convinced that the way to de-escalate tensions lies through ending Washington’s aggressive military activity in the sub-region, as well as establishing a mutually respectful dialogue based on taking into account the legitimate security interests of all parties involved in the Korean settlement.”

On November 27, through the mouth of the government publication Rodong Sinmun, North Korea stated that South Korea had previously violated the CMA and other key agreements between the two Koreas. The North believes that in 2023 alone, Seoul and Washington conducted about 250 joint military exercises to prepare for preventive strikes on Pyongyang, and over the past four years, similar “aggressive actions” have been carried out about 600 times.

On the same day, the conservative South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo wrote that the CMA “should not have come about from the beginning because many of its clauses were disadvantageous to the South.” Moreover, the North has violated it numerous times. “It opened up shore-based gun ports in the buffer zone of the western sea about 3,400 times over the past five years. It fired about 600 shells in two days in the zone in October 2022. In December of the same year, its drone infiltrated into the skies over Seoul.”

And then the expected re-militarization began. On November 27, North Korea began to restore security posts and deliver heavy firearms along the border with South Korea. Representatives of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea released photographs showing North Korean troops setting up temporary security posts, carrying what looked like recoilless guns and standing guard at night inside the demilitarized zone. According to a representative of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea, restoration work is currently underway at several security posts, but the North Korean side is expected to restore them completely.

On November 28, it became known that, since the North abandoned the CMA, KPA soldiers stationed in the Joint Security Zone of the Demilitarized Zone were carrying pistols. According to the Agreement, both sides had to stay disarmed, and the South Korean side has not yet armed itself.

On December 2, the KCNA published a military observer article “The ‘Republic of Korea’ can never evade the blame for having scrapped the North-South Military Agreement.” The text meticulously listed all the recent exercises and other actions of the ROK to strengthen combat readiness (including even the fact that “units of the three wings of puppet armed forces have been ordered to wear combat uniform”), which were presented as preparation for an aggressive war. “The number of anti-DPRK war drills staged by the puppet army alone is countless, including the joint military exercises “Ulji Freedom Shield,” the joint air exercises “Vigilant Storm” and the joint amphibious exercises “Sanren,” which numbered more than 80.” By the way, the permission to fly along the DMZ was interpreted not so much as conducting reconnaissance, but as preparing for psychological warfare by scattering propaganda materials from drones and through other means.

In addition, the North stated that “in the period from January to October this year alone, the puppet group of traitors committed more than 3,200 loudspeaker broadcasting provocations in the forefront area, more than 1,100 warships of the puppet army invaded the territorial waters of the DPRK for 1,270-odd times and reconnaissance planes intruded into the territorial air of the DPRK side over 150 times.” The latter, to put it mildly, looks strange, since if something like this happened, the KCNA would not ignore it.

Responsibility for all this was assigned to the “traitor” Yoon Suk-yeol, who denied the CMA from the very beginning and whose position, it turns out, is so on the verge of impeachment that he cunningly conceived “to trigger off the DPRK’s military counteraction by causing a shocking incident in the area along the Military Demarcation Line and seek a way out of the serious ruling crisis.”

The statement concluded with a passage stating that as a result of such a “physical crash and war on the Korean peninsula have become a matter of time, not possibility.” The buffer zone along the Military Demarcation Line, which had been maintained for the past five years, is completely destroyed and the unpredictable danger of war is escalating.”

On December 3, the head of the National Security Department of the Presidential Administration of the Republic of Korea, Cho Tae-yong, said in an interview with KBS that North Korea may be preparing to deploy new types of weapons in border areas, including new multiple launch rocket systems, as well as solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. According to Cho Tae-yong, the South Korean military has mobilized all means of surveillance to counter possible threats.

On December 4, the Ministry of Unification of the Republic of Korea condemned North Korea for repeated false accusations. Ministry spokesman Koo Byoung-sam said that South Korean troops do not use propaganda broadcasts over loudspeakers, as broadcasts through loudspeakers along the border are prohibited by South Korean law.

In response, South Korean troops have increased their combat readiness and fire capabilities by increasing reserves ready for deployment in several border areas, consisting of K-9 self-propelled guns and K239 Chunmoo Multiple rocket launchers. The surveillance and intelligence regime for the North Korean side has been significantly strengthened. Additional resources are involved from the number of destroyers with the Aegis system and radar missile systems. Patriot air and missile defense systems (modifications PAC-2 and PAC-3), as well as SAM (Cheongpung-II) have been put on alert.

On November 27, Yoon Suk-yeol ordered the troops to be put on full combat readiness: “While thoroughly monitoring North Korea’s moves, we should maintain a firm military readiness posture so that our citizens can feel secure.” On the same day, November 27, a representative of the US State Department stated that “the actions that the DPRK is taking along the DMZ following its abrogation of the CMA are increasing the risk of military tensions and miscalculations on the Korean Peninsula.” “In light of these developments, the United States remains in close and continual contact with the ROK through multiple channels to ensure that our alliance remains in lockstep.”

What else can we expect? According to the experts of the Republic of Korea, Pyongyang may also carry out artillery exercises near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) and engage in other provocative actions along the border that were prohibited under the military pact. Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, noted that the North’s annual winter military exercises, which are expected to begin in December and last until early spring, will be more extensive than previous ones and may include tactical nuclear strike exercises. Moreover, “they will also launch additional spy satellites in the coming months to fully establish a space-based surveillance system.”

Pak Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ihwa Women’s University, believes that the North will soon conduct artillery exercises near the maritime border separating the two Koreas, and may also use its reconnaissance drones near the border in response to South Korea’s resumption of intelligence activities. At least five active satellites are required to monitor the Korean Peninsula around the clock.

As a result, since “our military will feel less constrained,” Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies, also considers such a scenario very likely. “To show that their revocation of the agreement is not just empty words, it is expected that North Korea would demonstrate its force by violating the maritime border (NLL), deploying coastal artillery, firing shots at leaflets and launching missiles of various types,” he said.

Thus, Moon Jae-in’s entire legacy in the inter-Korean direction can be considered canceled. At the same time, there are grains of truth in the arguments of each side related to mutual fears and the resulting security dilemma, when each side argues that its “self-defense measures” should not be confused with “enemy provocations.”

The question is how this will affect the increase in tension. From the author’s point of view, the impact will be significantly smaller, since neither the North nor the South will risk initiating a large-scale conflict, which in the current situation can very quickly be escalated to nuclear. There will be a lot of belligerent gestures and articles like “Hawkish response to the North is unavoidable,” but the parties will try not to cross the line.

Traditionally, one should be afraid of something else. Firstly, tension increases nervousness, and stress increases the likelihood of conflict (hopefully, the term “Pig War” mentioned by the author has not yet bored his audience). Secondly, in such a situation, there is an increased danger of provocateurs who are ready to inspire conflict for their religious purposes, realizing that in a certain situation states will not be able to turn around.

Meanwhile, the rest of the consequences, including the launch of a South Korean satellite (which, from the author’s point of view, equally if not more exacerbates the arms race), and the appearance of American “strategic assets” in the region, will be tackled in the author’s final article on the issue.


Konstantin ASMOLOV, candidate of historical sciences, a leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia of the RAS, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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