Without buffer zone, two Koreas’ war of words could escalate into real one

Posted on : 2023-11-24 16:38 KST Modified on : 2023-11-24 16:38 KST
With the Sept. 19 inter-Korean comprehensive military agreement effectively null and void, both Koreas are ramping up their military activity along the DMZ
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits the Pyongyang General Control Center of the Korean National Aerospace Technology Administration on Nov. 22, the day after the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite. (KCNA/Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits the Pyongyang General Control Center of the Korean National Aerospace Technology Administration on Nov. 22, the day after the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite. (KCNA/Yonhap)

After the South Korean government suspended parts of its Sept. 19, 2018, comprehensive military agreement with North Korea following the North’s launch of a spy satellite, the North retaliated with the belligerent declaration that its “army will never be bound by” the accord. That’s likely to set off a feedback loop of rising military readiness on both sides of the DMZ.

The accord had created a land, air and sea buffer zone that served to block military clashes between South and North Korea, and experts say its nullification is sure to elevate military tensions between the two sides once more.

In a statement Thursday, the North Korean Ministry of National Defense announced that it would immediately restore all military measures that had been suspended by the CMA and “deploy more powerful armed forces and new-type military hardware in the region along the Military Demarcation Line.”

This has prompted predictions that North Korea will resume its previously halted military exercises around the MDL and stage shows of military force.

In terms of sea activities, the North could open up its coastal artillery and warship barrels around the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West Sea and resume maritime firing exercises. Another possibility is that it could install the same security positions it had once had in the DMZ prior to the withdrawal of its guard posts following the adoption of the Sept. 19 agreement.

Observers are also voicing fears that the North could deploy advanced extended range projectiles with ranges of 100 km or more, along with precision-guided munitions and multiple rocket launchers.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has emphasized the importance of weapon modernization, as seen with his focused three-day inspection of multiple rocket launcher ammunition factories last August.

Traditionally, the North Korean military has begun winter combat drills on Dec. 1 of each year. Some are speculating it could stage a show of force around this time.

The South Korean military is also expected to ratchet up its responses to North Korea’s actions.

Speaking before the National Assembly’s National Defense Committee on Thursday, Minister of National Defense Shin Won-sik warned of a forceful response.

“If North Korea uses the suspension of [the Sept. 19 agreement’s] effects as an excuse to engage in provocations, we will punish them to the last,” he declared.

When asked at the briefing about specific future measures to be taken, Defense Ministry spokesperson Jeon Ha-kyu stated, “The restoration of what was once the no-fly zone will allow the military to operate flexibly in terms of reconnaissance and surveillance and allow for training in the airspace.”

The South Korean military could also resume maritime gunnery exercises on Yeonpyeong Island and Baengnyeong Island in the West Sea, where there have been frequent clashes between the Koreas. Due to a ban on firing artillery in the maritime buffer zone, the military has had to bring K9 self-propelled howitzers back to the mainland for training, but the nullification of the buffer zone in the waters east and west of the peninsula will allow for self-propelled gun drills once more.

Tensions along the border are expected to increase, especially if South Korea resumes activities that easily rile the North, such as sending balloons filled with propaganda into North Korea or turning on loudspeakers at the border.

In the case of possible North Korean provocations, the South Korean military could resume artillery gunnery exercises within the area 5 kilometers south of the Military Demarcation Line.

This adds to the likelihood of accidental clashes in the border between the Koreas in the absence of a buffer zone.

North Korea’s Ministry of National Defense placed the blame for the possibility of clashes on the South, stating, “The most dangerous situation in the areas along the Military Demarcation Line, where the world’s most acute military confrontation linger and any slight accidental factor may lead an armed conflict to an all-out war, has now become irreversibly uncontrollable due to the serious mistake made by the political and military gangsters of the ‘ROK.’”

“The most likely place for a direct conflict is in the West Sea, where tensions are likely to escalate step by step,” said Professor Emeritus Koh Yu-hwan of Dongguk University.

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 in 2018, said, “So far, North Korea has only threatened with words, but there is a possibility that North Korea will launch shows of force if the South goes ahead with provocations such as sending leaflet balloons.”

“Until now, the North Korean military has not been able to conduct drills in the border area, but if maritime drills are held near the Northern Limit Line, the risk of a military confrontation increases,” said Kim Dong-yup, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. “If psychological warfare resumes and various military actions are taken under the guise of an accident or misunderstanding, problems concerning the safety of the border area are bound to increase.”

By Jang Ye-ji, staff reporter

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

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