More may be behind Seoul’s unusual warning to N. Korea against spy satellite launch

Posted on : 2023-11-21 17:27 KST Modified on : 2023-11-21 17:27 KST
Some analysts read the warning issued by South Korea’s military as an attempt to lay the groundwork for suspending the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement
Gen. Kang Ho-pil, the chief director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issues a warning to North Korea about its preparations for launching a military reconnaissance satellite in remarks from the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul on Nov. 20. (Yonhap)
Gen. Kang Ho-pil, the chief director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issues a warning to North Korea about its preparations for launching a military reconnaissance satellite in remarks from the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul on Nov. 20. (Yonhap)

The South Korean military has issued a series of warnings concerning North Korea’s intent to launch a military reconnaissance satellite. This is the first time the military has issued a warning before a North Korean show of force. The unprecedented move has sparked a number of interpretations.

In a warning issued from the Ministry of National Defense on Monday, Gen. Kang Ho-pil, the chief director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated, “North Korea is attempting to push through with the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite despite repeated warnings from the US-South Korea alliance and the international community.”

“We sternly warn it to immediately cease [preparations for its third] military reconnaissance satellite launch,” the general said. “If North Korea proceeds with the military reconnaissance satellite launch despite our warnings, our military will take necessary measures to protect the lives and safety of our people.”

Kang went on to say that North Korea’s military reconnaissance satellites “function to strengthen North Korea’s surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities against us,” and that “accepting restrictions on information monitoring activities in the contact zone [the area bordering the enemy] in accordance with the Sept. 19 military agreement would greatly reduce the military’s readiness, and result in the inability to protect the lives and safety of the people.”

This clarifies that the “necessary measures” that need to be taken involve a partial suspension of the Sept.19 inter-Korean military agreement.

Formally titled the “Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain” and sometimes referred to as the “comprehensive military agreement,” the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement was signed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during the third inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang on Sept. 19, 2018. The agreement was designed to prevent accidental military clashes between the two Koreas by expanding buffer zones of 5 kilometers each on land, 40 kilometers each at sea, and up to 25 kilometers each in the air, based on the Military Demarcation Line.

Appearing on the KBS network’s “Sunday Diagnosis” on Sunday, Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said that North Korea has “preparations well underway to launch in around a week’s time,” referring to a possible military spy satellite launch. Shin added that he expected a launch by the end of the month at the latest.

The National Security Council was also convened. The meeting was held earlier in the day, before President Yoon Suk-yeol’s departure to the UK and France, despite there being no show of force by the North.

Cho Tae-yong (fourth from right), the director of the National Security Office, presides over a meeting of the standing committee of the National Security Council held at the presidential office complex in Yongsan, Seoul, on Nov. 20. (courtesy of the presidential office)
Cho Tae-yong (fourth from right), the director of the National Security Office, presides over a meeting of the standing committee of the National Security Council held at the presidential office complex in Yongsan, Seoul, on Nov. 20. (courtesy of the presidential office)

“We will do our utmost to ensure that there are no gaps in security during the president’s trip overseas,” said Cho Tae-yong, the director of the National Security Office, and other attendees. “We will prepare for possible North Korean provocations such as the launch of reconnaissance satellites or medium- and long-range ballistic missiles, and take necessary measures through the South Korea-US alliance and coordinated actions among South Korea, the US and Japan.”

Many see this unusual advance warning to North Korea by the military and the National Security Council as an attempt to lay the groundwork for abrogating the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement.

As much as it is a warning to North Korea, it is also aimed at rallying domestic public opinion.

“Issuing such a warning message will end up rousing North Korea to launch the satellite. It seems to be a preliminary step toward scrapping the Sept. 19 agreement,” remarked Kim Jong-dae, a former Justice Party lawmaker and current visiting professor at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

“If North Korea succeeds in launching the military reconnaissance satellite, it would signify that North Korea’s ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] capabilities have been taken to a higher level. Therefore, we will have to come up with reinforced countermeasures,” Yoon said in a written interview with the Associated Press published on Nov. 14.

The overall sentiment in Seoul is that the Sept. 19 agreement can’t be upheld if North Korea launches a military reconnaissance satellite.

Some analysts believe that Yoon’s decision was motivated by the public’s dim view of his frequent trips abroad.

“There have been many instances in this administration where the military has claimed an imminent North Korean provocation for domestic political ends. This time, too, the military may have made a statement to defend Yoon’s trips abroad,” commented Kim Dong-yup, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

By Shin Hyeong-cheol, staff reporter

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

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