Hamas surprise attack sparks South Korean rethink of border agreement with North

Seoul’s defense minister says he will push to suspend deal creating buffer zone on frontier that had hampered ability to surveil movements by North Korean military

This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows increased activity at the Tumangang Rail Facility in North Korea, on Oct. 5, 2023 (Planet Labs PBC via AP)
This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows increased activity at the Tumangang Rail Facility in North Korea, on Oct. 5, 2023 (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s defense minister said Tuesday he would push to suspend a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement in order to resume frontline surveillance on rival North Korea, as a devastating surprise attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists from the Gaza Strip raised concerns in South Korea about similar assaults by the North.

The agreement, reached during a brief period of diplomacy between South Korea’s liberal former president Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, created buffer zones along land and sea boundaries and no-fly zones above the border to prevent clashes.

Talking with reporters in Seoul, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-shik cited the attack by Hamas to stress the need to strengthen monitoring on the North. Shin was appointed by President Yoon Suk Yeol on Saturday.

Shin was particularly critical of the inter-Korean agreement’s no-fly zones, which he said prevents South Korea from fully utilizing its air surveillance assets at a time when North Korean nuclear threats are growing.

Relations between the Koreas have decayed following the collapse of larger talks between Washington and Pyongyang in 2019 over the North’s nuclear weapons program. North Korea has threatened to abandon the 2018 agreement while dialing up missile tests to a record pace, prompting the conservative Yoon to take a harder line on Pyongyang than his dovish predecessor.

While it would take a complicated legal process for South Korea to fully abandon the agreement, pausing the agreement would only require a decision from a Cabinet meeting, Shin said.

South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik leaves after attending a parliamentary inspection of his agency at the National Defense committee of the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 10, 2023 (Yonhap via AP)

“Hamas has attacked Israel, and the Republic of Korea is under a much stronger threat,” Shin said, invoking South Korea’s formal name.

“To counter (that threat), we need to be observing (North Korean military movements) with our surveillance assets, to gain prior knowledge of whether they are preparing provocations or not. If Israel had flown aircraft and drones to maintain continuous monitoring, I think they might have not been hit like that,” he said. The Gaza border was in fact continuously monitored by Israel.

Shin’s comments are likely to draw fierce criticism from South Korea’s liberal opposition, which has described the agreement as a safety valve between the Koreas as relations continue to worsen.

There haven’t been major skirmishes between the Koreas since the agreement was reached in September 2018. But South Korea last November accused the North of violating the agreement’s tensions-reducing requirements when it fired a missile near a populated South Korean island near their sea border, triggering air raid sirens and forcing residents to evacuate.

A photo showing North Korea’s missile launch is displayed at the Unification Observation Post in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, Sept. 13, 2023 (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

In June 2020, North Korea blew up an empty inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong to demonstrate anger over South Korea’s unwillingness to prevent its civilian activists from flying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets across the border. North Korean troops also shot and killed a South Korean government official who was found drifting near their sea boundary in September that year.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are at their highest point in years as the pace of both North Korea’s weapons demonstrations and the United States’ combined military exercises with South Korea and Japan have both intensified in tit-for-tat.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group will arrive in the South Korean mainland port of Busan on Thursday in the allies’ latest show of force against North Korea. The ministry said the Reagan’s Carrier Strike Group 5 conducted joint training with South Korean and Japanese naval assets on Monday and Tuesday in waters near the southern South Korean island of Jeju.

Kim, in turn, has been boosting the visibility of his partnerships with Moscow and Beijing as he attempts to break out of diplomatic isolation and insert Pyongyang into a united front against Washington.

Recent commercial satellite photos show a sharp increase in rail traffic along the North Korea-Russia border, indicating the North is supplying munitions to Russia to fuel President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, Beyond Parallel, a website run by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a report last week.

Speculation about a possible North Korean plan to refill Russia’s munition stores drained in its protracted war with Ukraine flared last month, when Kim traveled to Russia to meet Putin and visit key military sites. Foreign officials suspect Kim is seeking advanced Russian weapons technologies in return for to boost his nuclear program.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un waves before boarding a train during a farewell ceremony at the end of his visit to Russia at the Artyom railway station near Vladivostok, in the Primorsky region, on September 17, 2023. (Handout / Government of Primorsky region / AFP)

North Korea is expected to make its third attempt to launch a military spy satellite this month following consecutive failures in recent months, as Kim stresses the importance of acquiring space-based reconnaissance capacities to monitor U.S. and South Korean military movements and enhance the threat of his nuclear-capable missiles.

In an editorial published Monday, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper called for South Korea to take lessons from Israel’s failures to prevent the attack by the Hamas militants while strengthening its readiness against potential North Korean aggression.

“Israel, surrounded by enemies and terrorist forces, is reminiscent of (South) Korea’s current security situation. Even the Mossad failed to detect signs of the attack and Israel’s all-weather air defense system Iron Dome exposed a hole,” the newspaper said. “The government must be thoroughly prepared for North Korea’s possible military provocations when the United States and other allies focus their attention on the Middle East.”

The inter-Korean military agreement is one of the few tangible remnants from Moon’s ambitious diplomacy with Kim. Moon’s efforts helped set up Kim’s first summit with former US president Donald Trump in June 2018.

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