[News analysis] North’s satellite launch sets off domino effect of heightening Korean tensions

Posted on : 2023-11-23 17:11 KST Modified on : 2023-11-23 17:11 KST
Seoul has partially suspended a buffer-creating military pact with North Korea in response to the latter’s launching of a military reconnaissance satellite
This photo, released by North Korean state media, shows the launch of the Malligyong-1 reconnaissance satellite aboard the Chollima-1 carrier rocket from a launch site in Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province, on Nov. 21. (KCNA/Yonhap)
This photo, released by North Korean state media, shows the launch of the Malligyong-1 reconnaissance satellite aboard the Chollima-1 carrier rocket from a launch site in Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province, on Nov. 21. (KCNA/Yonhap)

After previously trading barbs by calling one another “enemy” and “puppet,” South and North Korea are now locking horns with a third military reconnaissance satellite launch and the partial suspension of their September 2018 military agreement, which had banned aerial reconnaissance near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL).

In response to the North’s military reconnaissance satellite launch, the South Korean government moved to suspend certain clauses of the Sept. 19 military agreement signed in 2018. North Korea also conducted a ballistic missile launch late at night.

The situation effectively spells the abandonment of the agreement reached five years ago, which has been referred to as a “safety valve” in inter-Korean relations and peace on the peninsula. Combined with the disconnection of the two sides’ communication hotline since April 7, it creates a situation where the two Koreas have no means of crisis management available.

The result is creating conditions where the possibility of their souring relationship escalating beyond a war of words into a possible unintended military clash around the MDL cannot be ruled out.

On Wednesday, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported, “The National Aerospace Technology Administration (NATA) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea successfully launched the new-type carrier rocket ‘Chollima-1’ loaded with the reconnaissance satellite ‘Malligyong-1’ at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province, at 22:42:28 on November 21.”

This latest launch came after a first failed attempt on May 31 and a second on Aug. 24.

The third launch was observed at the scene by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. NATA stated that the Malligyong-1 would begin conducting official reconnaissance duties on Dec. 1, following a precision adjustment period lasting seven to 10 days.

North Korean leader was on-site for the launch of the Malligyong-1 reconnaissance satellite aboard the Chollima-1 carrier rocket from a launch site in Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province, on Nov. 21. (KCNA/Yonhap)
North Korean leader was on-site for the launch of the Malligyong-1 reconnaissance satellite aboard the Chollima-1 carrier rocket from a launch site in Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province, on Nov. 21. (KCNA/Yonhap)

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff announced that evening that it had “assessed the North Korean reconnaissance satellite as having entered orbit” — meaning that the launch itself was successful, without commenting on whether the satellite was functioning normally.

A senior Ministry of National Defense official said, “If we take into account the North Korea-Russia summit [on Sept. 13] and other factors, we cannot rule out the possibility of Russian assistance.”

The Rodong Sinmun also said NATA was “to present to the 9th Plenary Meeting of the 8th WPK Central Committee a plan for continuing to secure the capability to reconnoiter the south Korean region and the region of operational interest of the DPRK armed forces by additionally launching several reconnaissance satellites in a short span of time.”

This means that following approval by the Workers’ Party of Korea plenary meeting, expected to take place around the end of the year, the government plans to conduct additional military reconnaissance satellite launches in 2024.

North Korea’s launching of military reconnaissance satellites is a violation of UN Security Council Resolution No. 1874 (June 12, 2009), which prohibits any launches by North Korea using ballistic missile technology.

But the Rodong Sinmun piece referred to the launch as a “legitimate right of the DPRK,” which it predicted would “make a significant contribution to definitely ramping up the war preparedness of the armed forces of the Republic.”

As expected, the South Korean government responded by suspending the validity of provisions in the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement.

Seoul’s Defense Ministry announced the decision on Wednesday to suspend the validity of Article 1(3) of the Sept. 19, 2018, military agreement as of 3:00 pm that day.

The suspended article in question established a no-fly zone in the skies for a distance of 20 km (western region) and 40 km (eastern region) to the north and south of the MDL.

This makes the Yoon Suk-yeol administration the first to officially suspend the validity of an inter-Korean agreement in the history of such documents between their authorities, which began with the July 4 South-North Joint Statement of 1972.

In an ad hoc Cabinet meeting presided over by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo at the central government complex in Seoul at 8 am on Wednesday, the administration voted to suspend Article 1(3)’s validity.

Yoon, who is currently in the UK on a state visit, immediately granted his approval to the motion to partially suspend the validity of the Sept. 19 comprehensive military agreement.

Referring to the North’s military satellite launch as a “direct provocation that threatens South Korea’s security,” Han described the suspension of Article 1(3) as a “necessary measure for the sake of national security and a minimal defensive measure.”

The administration did not specify how long the article would be suspended, offering only an abstract prediction that the suspension would continue “until mutual trust between South and North is restored.”

President Yoon Suk-yeol presides over a meeting of the standing committee of the National Security Council from a hotel in London, UK, where he is on a state visit, on Nov. 22, in response to North Korea’s launch of a military reconnaissance satellite. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol presides over a meeting of the standing committee of the National Security Council from a hotel in London, UK, where he is on a state visit, on Nov. 22, in response to North Korea’s launch of a military reconnaissance satellite. (Yonhap)

The appropriateness of this approach could come up for debate, as Article 23(2) of the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act empowers the president to suspend the effects of inter-Korean agreements “for a fixed specific period.”

The standing committee of the National Security Council also added the proviso that “additional measures concerning other provisions of the Sept. 19 military agreement that remain valid will be determined based on North Korea’s future actions.”

A senior Defense Ministry official said there would be “additional measures for additional provocations [by the North].” This means the administration plans to potentially suspend the effects of other provisions in the 2018 military agreement — possibly including those halting hostile acts by land and sea — in the event of additional military activities by the North.

Some critics called the administration’s response “self-destructive” and a “non sequitur.”

In particular, they noted that the military agreement, which was reached at an inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in 2018, established areas where land, sea, and air-based military activities are banned to prevent an unintended clash involving conventional weapons around the MDL — and that it had no direct connection with North Korea’s nuclear or ballistic missile development programs or UNSC resolutions sanctioning the North.

Following the South Korean government’s partial suspension of the September 2018 military agreement on Wednesday, North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test launch that night, firing a projectile toward the East Sea from the sea of Sunan in South Pyongan Province.

In Seoul, the Joint Chiefs explained, “North Korea launched an unidentified ballistic missile, but the launch is believed to have failed.” The explanation suggests that the missile crashed down after too short a period to make determinations on its altitude or arrange — but the fact that it was launched gives some indirection of the intensity of North Korea’s reaction.

A former senior South Korean government official said the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement was a “rudimentary control on conventional armament that exists to protect the day-to-day activities of South Koreans in the border region,” stressing that it was “separate from a solution to the nuclear issue.”

“It is a safety valve for peace that no responsible administration would ever move first to abandon,” they added.

“Suspending the validity of the Sept. 19 military agreement is an irresponsible and wrongheaded approach that is like getting slapped on one side and taking it out on the other side,” they said.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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

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