In our last article on South Korea’s response to a UAV raid conducted by North Korea, we described South Korea’s most likely reaction, namely developing its own UAVs and upgrading its air defense system in view of the threat posed by UAVs and other provocations aimed at escalating tensions.
However, in addition to the UAV raids there are at least two other factors that could seriously inflame tensions on the peninsula.
Firstly, on January 4 a spokesperson for Yoon Seok-yeol’s administration informed journalists that the president has instructed the National Security Directorate to consider the issue of terminating the military agreement between North and South Korea. This could happen in the event of a further provocation from Pyongyang involving a violation of South Korea’s territory integrity.
The agreement on reducing military tension and preventing accidental clashes on the Korean peninsula was signed on September 19, 2018 in Pyongyang by South Korea’s then president, Moon Jae-in, and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The agreement is aimed at bringing an end to hostile actions between the two parties and minimizing the risk of war, and also includes plans to transform the demilitarized zone into a peace zone, develop military guarantees to enable trans-border exchange, and implement military measures to increase confidence between the two countries. The agreement also calls for the creation of a 10-kilometer buffer zone along the land border, in which the use of artillery and military exercises would be prohibited. It also establishes maritime buffer zones, 80 km wide, in the Sea of Japan and Yellow Sea.
It also provides for the removal of a number of customs posts, the disarmament of the Joint Security in the demilitarized zone (DMZ), cooperation on removing the bodies of soldiers from the Korean War from the DMZ, and the development of a Joint Utilization Zone along the estuary of the Han River.
The present author sees the 2018 agreement as significantly different from the other joint declarations, firstly because it has actually been implemented, and secondly because it played an important role in the demilitarization of the DMZ, and reduced tensions along the border, taking them back to the level seen in, say, 2015.
South Korea periodically accused North Korea of violating the agreement, not entirely accurately. In South Korea’s view, North Korea’s repeated firing of artillery rounds into the eastern and western maritime buffer zones in October, November and December last year were in breach of the agreement, although the text only actually prohibits the permanent basing of armaments in these territories. ICBM test launches are also not prohibited by the agreement – after all, if it applied to these it would also apply to the exercises conducted by South Korea. On the other hand, South Korea’s launching of balloons to carry propaganda leaflets into North Korea was clearly a hostile action, and to prevent such incursions Pyongyang was forced to blow up the building of the Kaesong liaison office in 2020.
However, as the journalist and Korea specialist Oleg Kiryanov sees it, in all fairness the agreement has now ceased to have any effect, as both sides have resorted to the principle of “answering force with force”, which is having the effect of aggravating the situation and ramping up military and political pressures. The major joint military exercises conducted on a regular basis by South Korea and the USA are also difficult to reconcile with the agreement, but South Korea insists that they are necessary for its defense.
Moreover, on January 5 South Korea’s Presidential administration announced that it is considering suspending the Declaration signed on September 19, 2018 in Pyongyang if North Korea launches any more attacks on South Korean territory. The agreement on reducing military tension is an annex to that Declaration. It is true that the Unification Minister was quick to stress that the possible suspension of the agreement on reducing military tension was not the same thing as suspending the Declaration.
Secondly, South Korea has discussed the possibility of renewing its propaganda campaigns directed at the North Korean capital. This could involve either the use of loudspeakers to transmit audio messages or the dropping of propaganda leaflets – although that tactic has hitherto been the preserve of marginal figures such as Park Sang-hak.
In the past, the South Korean military made propaganda broadcasts across the border as a key element in their psychological war against North Korea. According to South Korean soldiers, announcements made using loudspeakers can be heard over a distance of 10 kilometers during the day and 24 kilometers at night.
The announcements criticized the North Korean regime, but the use of loudspeakers was discontinued after the 2018 summit.
The loudspeaker announcements and the use of balloons to send propaganda leaflets may be reinstated if North Korea commits another violation of its South Korea’s airspace and the latter responds by suspending the agreement on reducing military tensions which was concluded on September 19, 2018.
It is true that there is some disagreement about the legality of using propaganda to target North Korea. Article 24 of South Korea’s Law on the Development of relations between North and South Korea, adopted following the events of 2020, prohibits the sending of propaganda across the border, and specifies a penalty of up to three years in prison or a fine of 30 million won ($23,000) for violations. Article 23 of the act stipulates that the president may suspend all or a part of each South-North Korean agreement for a fixed period, when significant changes occur in inter-Korean relations or when it is deemed necessary for national security, maintenance of order or public welfare.
Yoon Suk-yeol and his Unification Minister Kwon Young-se have criticized Article 24 as a “mistake”, arguing that it is unconstitutional and restricts citizens’ freedom of expression and political action.
According to a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Unification, following the UAV incident the Ministry began a legal review to establish whether Seoul could recommence loudspeaker announcements along the border or permit the dropping of propaganda leaflets over North Korea.
Professional defectors such as Thae Yong-ho, now a Conservative deputy, often claim that Kim Jong-un fears the “loudspeaker broadcasts directed against North Korean soldiers based along the border” more than anything else. Thae Yong-ho has therefore proposed warning North Korea that using the threat of loudspeaker broadcasts as a weapon to prevent North Korea carrying out its seventh nuclear test.
Cha Du-hyeogn, a principal fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, also said the government needs to consider the option. Bruce Bennett, a senior defense researcher at RAND Corporation Graduate School, a well-known foreign policy hawk, also believes that words can be more powerful than pullets and can preserve peace in the current situation. “What does Kim fear more than the collapse of his regime? Shouldn’t South Korea and the US threaten North Korea with a continuous bombardment of information from outside if he continues with his provocations?”.
However, according to Shin Jong-woo, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, “the South Korean government’s stance is focused on deescalating tensions and deterring provocations, but loudspeaker broadcasting may provide an excuse for North Korea to make further provocations, so I think it would be better no to resume it preemptively.”
As for “leaflet bombing”, in 2022, shortly before Yoon Seok-yeol came to power, Park Sang-hak’s NGO Fighters for a Free North Korea and other activist groups asked to meet with the presidential administration, and a meeting did in fact take place. However, there has been no repeat of that meeting this year to date, although, according to presidential officials, the government is “keeping open the communication channel and during his presidential election campaign Yoon Seok-yeol promised to work with the international community to improve North Koreans’ human rights. Nevertheless, so far the president’s office is limiting itself to “looking into the activists’ calls to allow the resumption of leaflet flying across the border to help inform North Koreans of the brutality of their regime”.
On January 9, 2023, in an interview with the Yonhap Press Agency, Park Sang-hak stated that he planned to send UAVs carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflet over the border in the near future, as balloons do not fly well in the winter because of the bad weather. Earlier Park Sang-hak had announced that back in April 2020 his group had send a drone carrying leaflets across the border, and it had flown as far as Pyongyang.
On the same day South Korea’s Ministry of Unification contacted Park Sang-hak’s NGO, calling on it to stop using drones to send inflammatory leaflets to North Korea, to protect the safety of residents living in border regions and in view of the tense situation on the border and the importance of ensuring compliance with the law.
Why does the present author consider that Seoul may not be just walking but actually leaping towards the line of danger? Firstly, because the North Koreans have long insisted that they will not only fire at the balloons, they will also target the locations from which the balloons are launched. The same applies to the loudspeakers. That greatly increases the risk of exchanges of fire in which people, including civilians in the regions from which Park Sang-hak has launched balloons, may be hurt. Moreover, any such incident would justify Seoul in declaring an end to the “Olympic warming”, and the result would be a vicious circle.
Secondly, it would be extremely dangerous to allow Park Sang-hak to do what he wants. In the past he has come up with alarming proposals such as to send materials infected with the COVID-19 virus into North Korea (an idea that was much criticized by other defectors) or to launch drones packed with explosives from China in order to blow up statues of the Kim dynasty – attacks that would serve as a justification for “humanitarian intervention”. If people like that are allowed free rein, they may end up doing something extremely dangerous, and it is Seoul that would have to carry the can.
Thirdly, Yoon Seok-yeol is naturally trying to ratchet up tensions with North Korea is exchange for a relatively discretion with Russia and China, but where’s the guarantee that the US won’t twist them?
Significantly, the Korea Times has suggested that instead of sticking to the logic of “an eye for an eye”, Yoon Suk-yeol might be better off looking to the example of two of his predecessors, Park Chung-hee, who was able to arrange the first significant talks between North and South Korea in 1972, and Roh Tae-woo, whose “Nordpolitik” approach enabled both Koreas to be accepted as members of the united Nations simultaneously. As the Korea Times put it, “what made these possible was that both ex-presidents were conservative leaders, free from criticism from South Koreans who were averse to communists. In contrast, three leftist leaders — Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in — were constantly put on hold by inter-Korean hawks from within and out”.
To sum up, let us hope that South Korea’s potential leap towards the danger line does not carry it too far.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”