S. Korea declares buffer zones with North to be nonexistent

Posted on : 2024-01-09 16:58 KST Modified on : 2024-01-09 16:58 KST
The announcement comes after three consecutive days of artillery drills by North Korea near the maritime border between the two Koreas
A South Korean tank fires during an exercise on Jan. 5 on the northwestern coast, near the border with North Korea. (courtesy of the Ministry of National Defense)
A South Korean tank fires during an exercise on Jan. 5 on the northwestern coast, near the border with North Korea. (courtesy of the Ministry of National Defense)

Addressing North Korea’s conducting of live artillery drills near the northwest maritime border for three consecutive days over the weekend, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff officially declared on Monday that buffer zones are no longer in place in the land and in the waters off the eastern and western coasts near the inter-Korean border, referring to zones outlined in the 2018 Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement. 

The Joint Chiefs also announced plans for South Korea to conduct its own artillery drills and training exercises in the region. 

South Korea previously paused its commitment to no-fly zones in the region after North Korea launched a military surveillance satellite this past November. Now, Seoul has announced that land and maritime no-hostility zones are void, and that training exercises in the region will resume. 

The Sept. 19 military pact has been all but relegated to the dustbin of history, increasing the likelihood of military clashes or skirmishes by land, air or sea in the border region. Critics of hard-line policy insist that continuous efforts toward peace and reconciliatory dialogue be carried out in tandem with stern responses to North Korea’s military provocations. 

“North Korea declared the nullification of the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement last year [Nov. 23], and recently they held three consecutive days of live artillery exercises near the western maritime border, which is supposed to be a no-hostility zone. Their behavior demonstrates that the no-hostility zone no longer exists,” the Joint Chiefs announced on Monday. 

“Accordingly, we will resume standard maritime and land-based artillery drills and training exercises in former no-hostility zones,” the Joint Chiefs added. 

“This means that the land and maritime no-hostility zones in the east and west coasts no longer exist,” the statement underscored.

South Korean Marines are now expected to resume regular maritime artillery drills in waters off the islands of Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong. South Korean Marine units stationed near the two islands have already fired shells south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto maritime border, in response to North Korea shelling waters north of the NLL on Friday.  

During a press conference on Monday, the spokesperson for the Joint Chiefs, Lee Sung-jun, said that North Korea “has violated the Sept. 19 military agreement over 3,600 times.” The 2018 military accord prohibited hostilities activity by land, air and sea in all regions; pledged to demilitarize the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom; outlined plans for withdrawing military personnel and equipment from guard posts (GP) within the DMZ; set forth plans for the joint exhumation of the remains of soldiers who died during the Korean War; and promised shared use of the Han River estuary. 

The crux of the agreement is the formation of buffer zones on land, and in the air and sea to prevent unintended military skirmishes in border regions from escalating into full-blown war. 

On Nov. 21, 2023, North Korea announced that it had successfully launched its third military surveillance satellite. The following day, South Korea announced that it would be suspending its commitment to the no-fly zone outlined in the 2018 pact. In response, North Korea said it was scrapping the Sept. 19 agreement on Nov. 23. Pyongyang moved swiftly to restore and re-equip GPs in the DMZ that had been destroyed and to remilitarize the JSA.

Starting on Friday, North Korea conducted three consecutive days of artillery drills in the former buffer zone near the maritime border on the peninsula’s western coast. Now, South Korea’s military has officially declared the land and maritime no-hostility zones to no longer exist. 

The risk of an unintended military clash in the border region, which contains the greatest concentration of land, maritime and air forces from both Koreas, is increasing by the minute. 

When North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, it did so shortly after demanding that South Korea discontinue firing drills near the island. The US and South Korea conducted joint artillery drills in December 2023. The South Korean Army conducted artillery drills last week. The South Korean Navy conducted artillery drills and naval maneuver exercises off the eastern, southern and western coasts last week. 

National Defense Minister Shin Won-sik has threatened North Korea with “obliteration” if they further provoke South Korea, adding that Seoul’s response will be “swift, forceful and definitive.” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has vowed to prepare for a “great event to suppress the whole territory of south Korea by mobilizing all physical means and forces including nuclear forces in contingency.” 

Considering that 2024 holds in store a general election in South Korea and a presidential election in the US, North Korea will likely continue escalating tensions throughout the year. 

“Whenever the US and Japan offer an official response to military provocations from North Korea, they need to always include language that hints at peace, to ensure that the door for dialogue remains open,” said Cho Seong-ryoul, a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies who also served as the consul general in Osaka. 

“Yet South Korea has closed that door by announcing the complete nullification of the Sept. 19 military agreement,” Cho lamented.

“Since autumn of last year, the US has been extending olive branches to China to prevent conflicts on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait, and will likely continue to do so leading up to the presidential election in November. The Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s hard-line approach to North Korea is in direct opposition to the international political situation,” Cho insisted. 

Addressing Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho after his New Year’s address at the Lotte Hotel Seoul, former South Korean Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo pleaded for Kim to “aggressively work to restore inter-Korean dialogue at all levels so that we may overcome the current crisis.” 

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

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