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Why a 'Historic' Inter-Korean Military Pact Broke Down

FILE - South Korean soldiers stand guard during a media tour at the Joint Security Area on the Demilitarized Zone in the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, March 3, 2023.
FILE - South Korean soldiers stand guard during a media tour at the Joint Security Area on the Demilitarized Zone in the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, March 3, 2023.

A 2018 military agreement, once hailed as a historic attempt to reduce tensions between North and South Korea, appeared to reach its demise this week, after both countries announced measures to step away from the pact.

Hours after the successful Tuesday launch of North Korea's first military spy satellite, the administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol announced a partial suspension of the accord, known as the Comprehensive Military Agreement, or CMA.

As part of the announcement, South Korea said its military will resume reconnaissance and surveillance flights in border areas. Such activity was banned under the CMA, which established buffer zones, no fly zones, and prohibited a wide range of other military activity near the border.

In response, North Korea on Thursday announced it would "immediately restore all military measures" halted under the deal and vowed to "deploy more powerful armed forces and new-type military hardware" in the border region.

The CMA was perhaps the most concrete outcome of the 2018-19 diplomacy between the two Koreas, which saw three meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his then South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in.

In Seoul, debate raged over who is to blame for the collapse of the accord, the latest in a cycle of escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Moon Chung-in, who played a key role in the inter-Korean diplomacy as a foreign affairs advisor for ex-president Moon, said Yoon had been determined to kill the CMA for ideological reasons, and that North Korea's satellite launch provided an occasion for him to do it.

In Moon's view, the CMA served as a "last guardrail" to prevent accidental clashes in the border region, which will now become "a much more volatile and dangerous place."

"The problem is that there is a greater chance for the escalation of these accidental clashes into a full-blown conflict, even the North Korean potential use of tactical nuclear weapons," he told VOA in an interview.

North Korean violations

The conservative Yoon, who has slammed what he calls the "fake peace" initiative of his liberal predecessor, had for months threatened to scrap the CMA, pointing to North Korean violations of the agreement.

In one particularly high-profile violation, North Korea last year sent five small reconnaissance drones across the border, with one making it all the way to the northern edge of the capital, Seoul.

North Korea has also fired artillery shells into areas designated by the CMA as maritime buffer zones.

This week, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said North Korea had regularly violated the military pact by failing to cover the barrels and close the gun ports of coastal artillery and other weapons within a maritime buffer zone.

North Korea's actions have consistently eroded the trust underpinning the CMA and other inter-Korean agreements, effectively nullifying the deals, argued Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat turned conservative South Korean politician, in a Facebook post this week.

How we got here

Much inter-Korean tension can be traced to the breakdown of nuclear talks between Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Kim and Trump met three times in 2018-19, but ultimately failed to agree over how to pace sanctions relief and other U.S. concessions with steps to dismantle North Korea's nuclear program.

Around the time Kim walked away from talks with the United States, he also abandoned negotiations with South Korea, in part because U.S. and international sanctions restricted Seoul's ability to offer concessions to Pyongyang.

Since then, North Korea has conducted an unprecedented number of major missile tests and steadily added to its nuclear arsenal, which it now says can be used for preemptive strikes, if necessary.

Yoon, who took office in May of last year, favors a more military-focused approach to North Korea. At times, Yoon has adopted an explicit "tit for tat" response to North Korean provocations, accelerating a cycle in which each side blames the other for raising tensions.

Some observers in Seoul say that dynamic played out this week, eventually leading to the death of the CMA, which had served as a crucial tension-reducing mechanism.

But others argue that the inter-Korean military pact had already lost much of its value as a means to reduce risk, given North Korea's decision to reject dialogue and pursue a more combative and inward-facing policy.

Sydney Seiler, who until earlier this year was the national intelligence officer for North Korea in the U.S. National Intelligence Council, told VOA earlier this week that abrogation of the CMA "will be the result of deteriorated inter-Korea relations and escalatory steps by North Korea, not the cause."

How the US feels

For years after the CMA was signed, U.S. military officials and diplomats in South Korea were publicly supportive of the pact.

As the Yoon administration's criticism of the CMA grew louder in response to North Korean provocations, U.S. officials' public statements became more cautious.

On Wednesday, a State Department spokesperson told VOA that South Korea's decision to suspend one provision of the CMA was a "prudent and restrained" response to persistent North Korean violations of the agreement.

While the CMA "helped reduce tensions," North Korea's failure to adhere to the deal "created untenable challenges" for South Korea's security, added the U.S. spokesperson.

However, even if many U.S. officials privately continue to support the CMA, they would not publicly criticize the decision of a key ally such as South Korea, said Moon, the former foreign affairs advisor.

"The Biden administration's basic stance on the Korean Peninsula is the stable management of the status quo," said Moon. "There could now be a higher probability of accidental military clashes, and that won't be helpful to U.S. strategic interests."

Chun In-bum, a retired lieutenant general in the South Korean army, said regardless of the outcome of the CMA, or its potential for success in the first place, it represented a "good effort, especially with a new North Korean leader and the threat of conflict at the time."

"It is unfortunate for everyone that the CMA is now declared defunct," said Chun. "Why does it matter whose fault this is?"