War in Middle East revives calls to suspend Sept. 19 inter-Korean military accord by S. Korean conservatives

Posted on : 2023-10-11 16:55 KST Modified on : 2023-10-11 16:55 KST
The claim that the declaration weakened South Korea’s surveillance posture vis-à-vis North Korea is baseless, and some believe it may provoke Pyongyang
Defense Minister Shin Won-sik appears before the National Assembly’s National Defense Committee for the annual parliamentary inspection of the ministry held at the National Defense Ministry on Oct. 10. (Yonhap)
Defense Minister Shin Won-sik appears before the National Assembly’s National Defense Committee for the annual parliamentary inspection of the ministry held at the National Defense Ministry on Oct. 10. (Yonhap)

South Korea’s newly appointed defense minister is using Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel to once again advocate for suspending a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement aimed at halting hostilities between the two Koreas. However, the minister’s argument that the agreement undermined Seoul’s ability to surveil and conduct reconnaissance on North Korea is false, and some suggest that if South Korea expresses its intent to suspend the agreement first, it could provide North Korea with an excuse to carry out provocations.

Mentioning the clash between Israel and Hamas while speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Defense Minister Shin Won-sik remarked that South Korea should keep an eye on the movements of the North Korean military using surveillance and reconnaissance assets. “The designation of restricted airspace as a result of the Sept. 19 agreement extremely limits real-time surveillance of signs of imminent North Korean provocations in frontline areas,” he said, adding that he would push for the agreement’s suspension as soon as possible.

Officially titled the “Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain,” the Sept. 19 military agreement that Seoul and Pyongyang adopted in 2018 designated the airspace extending 20 to 40 kilometers north and south of the Military Demarcation Line as a no-fly zone in order to cease hostile activities.

Shin even noted specific steps that can be taken to realize his aim, continuing, “Scrapping the Sept. 19 agreement requires legal steps, while suspending it only needs the Cabinet’s approval as far as I know.” Due to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act, the declaration cannot be tossed out and can only be suspended for a specific period of time determined by the president.

Members of Korea’s ruling party echoed Shin’s sentiment. During a party meeting held at the National Assembly, People Power Party floor leader Yun Jae-ok stated, “Some point out that the attack by Hamas should occasion a complete reconsideration of the Sept. 19 agreement. The document was agreed upon based on the good faith that North Korea would not strike first, and it puts the entire greater Seoul area in danger.” While giving a speech on behalf of his party’s bargaining committee on Sept. 19, Yun also declared the agreement to be useless, describing it as a “half-baked agreement only [South Korea] is keeping.”

However, the presidential office did not immediately go along with Shin’s reasoning. A high-ranking official at the presidential office told the Hankyoreh that “pushing for the suspension of the inter-Korean military agreement doesn’t correspond with the armed clash between Israel and Hamas.” Another official explained, “The suspension of the military agreement cannot be brought up when direct provocations from North Korea are lacking.”

In October 2022, the presidential office floated the possibility of suspending the Sept. 19 agreement in the event of a serious provocation from North Korea.

However, the claim that the declaration weakened South Korea’s surveillance posture vis-à-vis North Korea is baseless, and some believe it may provoke Pyongyang.

Kim Do-gyun, the former commander of the Capital Defense Command who served as South Korea’s chief delegate at inter-Korean general-level talks at the time the Sept. 19 Pyongyang Declaration was being negotiated, remarked, “After the declaration was signed, the UN commander and South Korea-US Combined Forces commander both gave operational guidance and commands indicating all was good regarding the maintenance of the ceasefire agreement and the military readiness posture.”

He continued, “North Korea’s system makes it hard to advocate for the suspension of the Sept. 19 agreement, which was signed by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. If we rashly suspend it first, it will provide North Korea an opportunity to provoke.”

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter; Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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