At the Pyongyang summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, held from September 18-20, 2018, a declaration was signed by the ranking military officials of the two Koreas. This agreement is intended to prevent military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. Specifically it establishes buffer zones, based on the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) (a.k.a. the Armistice Line) on land, and on the Northern Limit Line (NLL) at sea. Optimists see the agreement as a useful step toward better relations; pessimists see it as a step too far, given the continuing military tensions on the Korean Peninsula. A balanced appraisal suggests that it is too soon to decide.
This is not the first time that the two Koreas have reached agreement on military issues since the Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, which implemented a ceasefire in the Korean War. The most important are the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, Exchanges and Cooperation (a.k.a. the Basic Agreement), and the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, both signed in 1991. This new agreement is more comprehensive, however, and includes substantive measures that should allow the effective de-escalation of tactical and operational contingencies between the two Korean militaries.
Details of the 9/19 Military Agreement
The previous inter-Korean summits, in April and May 2018, were primarily concerned with political matters, but at the latest summit the main emphasis was on military issues.
Both Koreas made notable concessions affecting their current combat readiness in all three battlespaces: land, sea, and air. They have committed to establishing so-called peace zones near the NLL and the MDL, without any military withdrawals or redeployment of troops from either side. Within these new buffer zones, live-fire artillery drills, major maneuvers, and new weapons will not be permitted; there will also be no-fly zones, including for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and joint fishing areas crossing the NLL. The existing Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) stretches for 2 kilometers on either side of the MDL; the new buffer zones will extend to 5 km. The peace areas based on the NLL will reach 135 km. Near the DMZ, the no-fly zone for helicopters will be 10 km, for UAVs 15 km, and for fixed-wing aircraft 20 km on the eastern and 40 km on the western frontlines.
To support these peace zones there are new rules of engagement applicable to both militaries. Moreover, several previously agreed-upon measures will also be implemented or reactivated, including: establishing a Joint North-South Military Committee, membership to be determined according to the Basic Agreement of 1991; connecting high-level hotlines as agreed in the Joint Statement of 1974; disarming security guards in the Joint Security Areas; and allowing mutual use of the Han River Estuary, in accordance with the Armistice Agreement signed of 1953. Both sides will also withdraw a number of guard posts.
Finally, the two Koreas will work together to recover human remains and will concurrently clear landmines near the DMZ. They will construct roads for these purposes, thereby providing direct logistics and communications between the Koreas for the first time.
Reaction to the 9/19 Military Agreement
Conservative opinion in South Korea has criticized the agreement for several reasons. Some, stuck in a Cold War mentality, believe that North Korea is still planning a military invasion of the South, meaning the agreement is mere subterfuge. Others complain that it unfairly treats Pyongyang and Seoul on equal terms, as if the history of lethal military provocations by the North is somehow equivalent to the verbal hostility sometimes expressed by the South, and that both are equally guilty of escalating military tensions. Another objection concerns the future of the longstanding U.S.-ROK alliance: Pyongyang has always sought to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, and right now there is a huge gap between U.S. and South Korean perceptions of North Korean intentions. The United States is only interested in rapid denuclearization, whereas South Korea has focused on trust-building measures, and many ordinary people view the North with tolerant goodwill. So is the whole process a trap set by North Korea with the ultimate goal the withdrawal of U.S. Forces from the Korean Peninsula? Certainly the routine vituperation of the United States by North Korean media has continued unabated.
Soon after the agreement was signed, press briefings were given by the South Korean military to clarify three points. First, South Korea will closely coordinate with the international community to ensure compliance with UN-led economic sanctions against North Korea. Second, the agreement in no way constrains any defensive measures which the South might need to take to counter any aggressive military action by the North. Third, the NLL must be acknowledged as the de facto maritime boundary between the two Koreas in the West Sea, otherwise the possibility of serious naval conflict will remain, as seen during the two sea skirmishes and the North Korean artillery bombardment of Yeonpyong Island in November 2010, and also the deliberate sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan in March 2010.
Opinion among serving military officers, perhaps surprisingly, is that from the perspective of on-scene commanders charged with facing the possibility of local skirmishes or armed clashes near the NLL or MDL, there will be little change in their day-to-day situation. Both militaries are, however, likely to be more cautious when considering counter-operations against perceived challenges, and should view unexpected contingencies in terms of sustaining peace, instead of being ever-ready to “fight tonight.” This agreement does not constitute arms control or arms reduction; rather, it is a continuation and further development of the bilateral confidence-building measures first proposed in the Joint Statement of 1974. Although, as already mentioned, North Korean media continue to attack the United States, there has been a significant shift in their treatment of South Korea. Formerly, there was a constant contrast stressed, between the “Socialist Heaven” of the North and the “Decadent Imperialism” of the South; but for now, at least, the ideological and rhetorical broadcasting war appears to be over.
Many South Korean analysts believe that the threat from North Korea is unchanged. They see the 9/19 Military Agreement as unnecessary and dangerous, conceding too much to North Korea and undermining South Korea’s national security. Disturbing rumors are circulating: That at the general-level military talks held on July 14, 2018, a North Korean draft of the agreement was delivered, to which South Korea acquiesced; that the Ministry of National Defense (MND) was given no opportunity to review North Korean demands at an early stage; and that any objections which the MND did subsequently express were overruled by Moon. Even if this is all fake news, as the modern idiom has it, there is clearly substantial opposition to the agreement within the military establishment.
One crucial issue concerns the inspections and other official visits that will form an essential part of implementing the 9/19 Military Agreement. Unfortunately the United States may not get on side with such requirements. It was a shock for Moon’s government when U.S. General Vincent Brooks — acting as commander of the UN Command, not as commander of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces — refused to give the South Korean military permission to enter the DMZ to prepare for working-level inspections of the long-neglected North Korean railways. Of course, both Korean militaries can be expected to be sensitive about inspections of their strategic and operational facilities, for national security reasons. But any inspection which involves USFK facilities and deployments will likely be completely out of the question, and some will then argue that the ROK-U.S. alliance has now begun to obstruct peace on the Korean peninsula.
Many other issues will impact the implementation of the agreement: How to achieve North Korean denuclearization; when to transfer wartime operational control to South Korea from the USFK; how to secure civilian control of the military, in response to the changing political and social circumstances in South Korea; how to proceed with conventional arms reductions between the two Koreas, taking into account comparative GDP, population, economic structure, and future threat perceptions. Of course the geopolitical context cannot be overlooked – the Korean peace initiative will need to be supported, or at least not opposed, by China, Russia, and Japan.
But support is most needed, of course, from the United States. The progress already made between North and South Korea on limiting the buildup of conventional arms is running far ahead of the U.S.-North Korea process of denuclearization. Moon wants to emphasize the importance of continuing negotiations between the United States and North Korea, rather than relying on the “maximum pressure” strategy of enforcing sanctions, chiefly by attempting to interdict illegal oil transfers in the East China Sea, which involves the navies of the United States, the UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, and South Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump and his National Security Advisor John Bolton are distrusted by many South Koreans, but they are more optimistic that U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis can get negotiations with North Korea back on track, with step-by-step phased and simultaneous actions toward denuclearization, based on the Singapore Agreement.
The Way Ahead
If Kim Jong Un is sincere in wanting to transform North Korea, then the United States and South Korea should do everything they can to help him. Both the suspension of ROK-U.S. combined military exercises and the extension of the buffer zones between two Koreas are useful, in that they provide reassurance to the North Korean regime, and to its people, that neither the United States nor the South need be feared any longer. South Korea wants to see signals from North Korea that it is evolving into a more normal state, with a normal kind of leadership. Helping the North to feed its people and provide them with a better standard of living is not about saving Kim’s face; it is an essential part of the normalization process. Yes, social and political freedoms are also essential, but they will not come tomorrow.
The basic agreements that have been signed between North and South Korea need to be fully implemented. Denuclearization needs to be negotiated with tolerance and patience, and the process cannot be hurried. Improvements in North-South interactions should be treated as a separate process, with its own timescale, and not held hostage to progress on denuclearization. The 9/19 Military Agreement between the two Koreas should not become entangled with the U.S. determination to achieve denuclearization, still less with U.S. domestic politics.
Moon met with Trump in Washington on September 24, and he raised the issues of the End of War Declaration and his plans to use North Korea for economic development. The ball is now clearly in the U.S. court. The utterly unsustainable war-any-moment atmosphere which Koreans endured during 2017 cannot, and must not, be repeated.
Sukjoon Yoon, a retired ROK Navy captain, is a senior fellow of the Korea Institute for Military Affairs, South Korea.