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ConflictsNorth Korea

North Korea ends military pact with South Korea — what next?

November 24, 2023

Within hours of a North Korean spy satellite launch, a military de-escalation pact was ditched and both Koreas are beefing up border surveillance operations.

South Korean army soldiers work in front of a military guard post at the Imjingak Pavilion in in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea
Analysts say it is inevitable that tensions would spike on the Korean peninsulaImage: Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo/picture alliance

North Korea is expected to resume "provocations" along its land and sea borders with South Korea after Pyongyang announced on Thursday that it was withdrawing from the 2018 inter-Korean pact designed to reduce military tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Analysts have warned that the North has been emboldened by its new relationship with Moscow, which South Korean intelligence has claimed provided technical assistance for Tuesday's launch of a North Korean rocket that put its "Malligyong-1" spy satellite into orbit.

State media has already boasted that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been provided with new images of US military bases on the Pacific island of Guam and it is likely that the new spacecraft is being tasked with identifying defenses on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula.

South Korea had hinted before the launch that if the North defied international requests not to go ahead with the deployment of the satellite, it would have little choice but to reconsider the 2018 agreement signed by Kim and then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

"South Korea warning it might suspend the inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement was never going to dissuade North Korea from launching a military satellite," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Promises 'benefitted Pyongyang'

"But this allows the Yoon administration to step away from the previous administration's confidence-building measures that disproportionately benefited the Kim regime and which Pyongyang has violated numerous times," the analyst said. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looks on as a rocket carrying the spy satellite 'Malligyong-1' is launched
Pyongyang's launch of the 'Malligyong-1' was its third attempt at securing a military eye in the sky after failures in May and AugustImage: KCNA via REUTERS

"The surveillance drone operations Seoul may soon commence along the DMZ should produce more useful intelligence than North Korea's rudimentary satellite program," Easley added, but warned that, "Pyongyang will likely use South Korean drone flights as an excuse for further military provocations."

On Wednesday, just hours after the spy satellite launch, President Yoon Suk-yeol approved the suspension of a clause in the agreement that enforced a no-fly zone along the land and sea demarcation line.

The clause had long been unpopular with the South Korean military because it effectively forbade reconnaissance flights close to the border.

The military argued this reduced the South's ability to monitor troop movements in the North and anticipate and withstand any sudden attack.

In a statement, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told reporters after a cabinet meeting, "this is necessary for the security of South Korea and is a thoroughly justified and minimal defensive measure."

North Korean complete withdrawal

North Korea upped the ante the following day by announcing that it was withdrawing entirely from the agreement.

A statement from the Defense Ministry, carried by state media KCNA, said its forces "will not be bound" by the agreement and that all military measures "will be restored immediately."

It added that South Korea would be forced to "pay dearly" for its decision to withdraw from part of the agreement.

North Korea's 'nuclear attack simulation'

Analysts say one of the first moves is likely to be the restoration and reoccupation of guard posts within the DMZ that were decommissioned under the 2018 agreement.

Artillery exercises close to the disputed sea border off the west coast of the peninsula may also resume, while winter maneuvers in December are likely to be larger than in previous years.

There is also concern over the Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons, with the International Atomic Energy Agency confirming that the North's Yongbyon nuclear research facility has resumed operations and South Korean intelligence warning that a seventh underground nuclear test could take place next year.

RahJong-yil, a former diplomat and senior South Korean intelligence officer, said it was inevitable that tensions would spike on the peninsula as soon as the agreement was terminated, but he argues that it has effectively been defunct for some time.

"I would say that the ending of the agreement itself is not all that significant, largely because the North has been repeatedly violating the terms of the deal for the last few years anyway," he told DW.

'75 North Korean breaches'

Rah added that the Ministry of Defense in Seoul has listed at least 75 breaches of the pact by the North Korean side since it was signed, the majority being drone flights operated into the no-fly zone along the border apparently with the intention of testing the South's detection and response capabilities.

"And now they have put a reconnaissance satellite into orbit, you could argue that much of the 2018 agreement was meaningless anyway," he added.

"Now, we have to pay attention to the developments they are making with their weapons, which the North describes as its 'three-dimensional capability'," he said. "We know they are investing heavily in nuclear weapons, long-range missiles — including submarine-launched missiles — and space weapons. This is the challenge we must focus on now."

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Edited by: Keith Walker

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea