Tit-for-tat along DMZ could balloon into clash off Korea’s western coast

Posted on : 2024-06-04 17:17 KST Modified on : 2024-06-04 17:17 KST
After North Korea said it would pause sending trash balloons into the South, Seoul hit back by suspending a key buffer-creating military agreement
Military officials clean up trash dropped by a balloon from North Korea after it fell in Paju’s Unjeong neighborhood on June 2, 2024. (courtesy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
Military officials clean up trash dropped by a balloon from North Korea after it fell in Paju’s Unjeong neighborhood on June 2, 2024. (courtesy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)

Escalating tensions along the DMZ seemed poised to settle down after North Korea declared a pause on floating trash-filled balloons across the border as Seoul hinted at returning propaganda loudspeakers to the inter-Korean border. But the two now find themselves on the brink of crisis as South Korea suspends a buffer-creating military agreement with the North. 

North Korea made the first move towards avoiding conflict after 10 pm on Sunday. In a press statement, Kim Kang-il, North Korea’s vice minister of national defense, said, “We made the ROK clans get enough experience of how much unpleasant they feel and how much effort is needed to remove the scattered wastepaper [from the trash balloons]. We are going to halt wastepaper scattering over the border temporarily as our action was a countermeasure from A to Z.”
The statement was issued around four hours after the South Korean government announced after a National Security Council standing committee meeting that it had decided to embark on measures “difficult for North Korea to handle,” and said that the option of resuming loudspeaker broadcasts was “not off the table.”
However, the South Korean government has responded to North Korea’s conciliatory gesture by ratcheting up the stakes and suspending an inter-Korean military agreement signed on Sept. 19, 2018, that created buffers to prevent conflict. This means that responses to further “provocations” by North Korea will not be limited by the comprehensive military agreement, opening up the possibility of military responses.
Signed in September 2018 on the sidelines of the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement was hailed as the first attempt at operational arms control in the history of the Korean Peninsula, and has since been called “the last safeguard for peace on the Korean Peninsula.” However, the Yoon administration considers it a detrimental agreement that has “caused many problems” for the military’s readiness to respond.
Article 23 Clause 2 of the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act stipulates that “a fixed specific period” should be determined when “suspend[ing] all or part of effects of each South-North Korean agreement.” The Yoon administration has tacked on the phrase “until mutual trust between the two Koreas is restored” when determining to suspend the agreement, and it remains to be seen if that particular clause is lawful and meets the conditions defined in the act.
The suspension of the Sept. 19 military agreement raises the possibility of accidental military clashes in the waters near the Northern Limit Line off the western coast. In another statement issued on May 26, Kim Kang-il said that “the number of [South Korea’s] intrusion across our maritime border is also increasing,” and that North Korea may “exercise [its] self-defensive power on or under the water at any moment.”
There is also a risk that sending propaganda leaflets to North Korea could spark a kinetic conflict. Park Sang-hak, the head of the Fighters for a Free North Korea, the organization of North Korean defectors that flew balloons carrying propaganda leaflets north from Ganghwa Island on May 10, said on Monday that there was “no change” to the group’s original plan to “fly balloons containing leaflets when the wind blows north.” 

However, the North warned on Sunday night that “if the ROK clans resume anti-DPRK leaflet scattering, [North Korea] will correspond to it by intensively scattering waste paper and rubbish a hundred times the amount of scattered leaflets and the number of cases.”
Despite this situation, a Ministry of Unification spokesperson responded to a question asking if the ministry would ask for organizations to refrain from sending leaflets to North Korea by saying that the ministry was “taking into account the spirit of the Constitutional Court’s decision to guarantee freedom of expression.”
In other words, Seoul currently has no plans to proactively crack down or hinder the spreading of leaflets by private citizens. The road ahead for inter-Korean relations is paved with landmines.
“The exchange of leaflets and trash-filled balloons is a childish fight that embarrasses us so much, we hope no one is watching,” said several former senior government officials, adding, “We wonder if the government is deliberately escalating the level of forceful rhetoric against North Korea to protect the president’s plummeting approval ratings.”

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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