Picking apart S. Korean ruling camp’s claims that N. Korea could pull off Hamas-style infiltration

Posted on : 2023-10-16 16:19 KST Modified on : 2023-10-16 16:19 KST
The ruling party and members of Yoon’s administration blame a Moon-era inter-Korean military agreement for making South Korea vulnerable to invasion, but this isn’t the case
North Korea carried out a “firepower strike drill” on May 9, 2019, under the supervision of leader Kim Jong-un. Some believe the projectiles to be the “North Korean Iskander” and 240 mm multiple rocket launchers. (KCNA/Yonhap)
North Korea carried out a “firepower strike drill” on May 9, 2019, under the supervision of leader Kim Jong-un. Some believe the projectiles to be the “North Korean Iskander” and 240 mm multiple rocket launchers. (KCNA/Yonhap)

Following Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel, there have been mounting concerns that South Korea would be defenseless if North Korean special forces infiltrate the country on AN-2 planes after firing long-range artillery. Some are even arguing that South Korea is in more danger than Israel, as the country’s surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities concerning North Korea have purportedly weakened due to an inter-Korean military accord signed in 2018. Based on this reasoning, the Yoon administration and the ruling party are advocating for the suspension of said pact.

In contrast, others argue that the pact, known commonly as the Sept. 19 agreement, has become more important, as it designated buffer zones on land, at sea, and in the air, and as the confrontation between Israel and Hamas escalated and did more damage due to the lack of a buffer zone.

During a parliamentary inspection of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Thursday, Democratic Party lawmaker Kim Byung-joo argued that “suspending the Sept. 19 accord would eliminate the buffer zone between South and North Korea and make it easier for North Korea to carry out a surprise attack, just as Hamas ambushed areas adjacent to the Gaza Strip.”

What enabled Hamas members to break through barriers and infiltrate on motorized paragliders was Israel’s relative lack of depth in terms of operational scope. Israel and Gaza are separated by a 6-meter-tall concrete barrier, without any buffer like the Korean Peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) or a no-fly zone.

While some have criticized the September 2018 military agreement as a “disarmament that aids North Korea,” the agreement applies to both sides rather than representing a unilateral concession on the South’s part.

In particular, it establishes a no-fly zone extending 20 kilometers into North Korean airspace in the western part of the peninsula, allowing for preliminary warnings and measures in the case of an approach by North Korean fighter aircraft.

Kim Byung-joo explained, “Even before the September 2018 agreement, South Korean and US reconnaissance aircraft flew to distances of 20 km south of the Military Demarcation Line, which is outside the range of North Korean anti-aircraft missiles, so it is contrary to the facts to argue that the establishment of a no-fly zone based on the September 2018 agreement weakened our monitoring for signs of North Korean provocations.”

Israel suffered a surprise attack despite possessing the world’s most sophisticated means of surveillance and reconnaissance, which allowed it to observe Gaza in real time. Since Israel and Hamas had nothing like the September 2018 agreement, the situation may have represented a failure of intelligence judgments rather than a failure of surveillance and reconnaissance, as the South Korean administration and ruling People Power Party (PPP) have claimed.

Kim Do-gyun, the former commander of the Capital Defense Command and senior South Korean representative to inter-Korean general-level talks at the time of the agreement, said on Sunday that the “biggest lesson of the Israel-Hamas war is that the horrors of war cannot be permitted to happen, that we need to prevent escalation and civilian losses.”

“So it’s bizarre to see the September 2018 agreement now coming under discussion,” he added.

The suggested scenario in which North Korean special forces enter Seoul’s airspace on AN-2 low-altitude infiltration aircraft also raises a number of questions.

While it is argued that the AN-2’s construction with wood and cloth would make them undetectable to radar, their main fuselage is built with metal, making it detectable to the South Korean military’s radar and early warning aircraft.

Due to their lack of night flight capabilities and their noisy flight, the AN-2 aircraft have been referred to as “trucks with wings.” They are unlikely to possess the stealth capabilities needed for them to serve as means for carrying out an ambush or surprise infiltration.

In 2019, Korea Institute for Defense Analyses senior researcher Boo Hyeong-wook suggested that the threat faced by the greater Seoul area could be reduced by placement of North Korean long-range artillery at least 40 km to the rear in the western region. The idea was to minimize the threat to the capital region as an area with a large population and concentration of major infrastructure.

This reorganization was dubbed the “taegeuk model,” since the withdrawal in the west while maintaining a forward presence in the east resulted in a shape resembling the taegeuk symbol, like that found on South Korea’s national flag.

Many reports have suggested that the so-called “impenetrable shield” of Israel’s Iron Dome has been rendered useless since the war with Hamas erupted.

Designed to intercept rockets with missiles, the Iron Dome is a weapon system tailored to Israel’s battlefield environment. Since Hamas generally fires rockets from within civilian regions of Gaza, Israel has focused on interception with missiles rather than striking at the source.

In contrast, North Korea’s long-range artillery is located far away from areas where civilians live. The focus of strikes by South Korea and the US would be on the artillery itself. The development objective behind the “Korean-style Iron Dome” is to protect key infrastructure in the capital from a counterstrike by any North Korean artillery that was not taken out following these destructive strikes.

“South Koreans need to objectively analyze the lessons that the Israel and Hamas war offers and make rational decisions,” said Eom Hyo-sik, a reserve colonel and former director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff public affairs office.

“Instead, they’re going back and forth between extremes and making conclusive assessments, as the Iron Dome example shows,” he added.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

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

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