South Korea mulls pause on North Korea military pact after Hamas attack

South Korea’s defence minister says violence in Israel and Gaza shows a need to strengthen monitoring of the North.

North Korea and South Korea are separated by a heavily militarised border [Ahn Young-joon/AP]

South Korea’s defence minister has said he will push to suspend a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement in order to resume front-line surveillance on rival North Korea, as the surprise attack on Israel by Hamas raised concerns in South Korea about similar assaults by the North.

Talking with reporters in Seoul on Tuesday, South Korean Defence Minister Shin Won-sik cited the violence in Israel and Gaza to stress the need to strengthen monitoring of the North.

Shin was appointed by President Yoon Suk-yeol on Saturday.

The agreement, reached during a brief period of diplomacy between South Korea’s former liberal 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.

Shin was particularly critical of the inter-Korean agreement’s no-fly zones, which he said prevents South Korea from fully utilising 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 programme.

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.

“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,” he said.

“If Israel had flown aircraft and drones to maintain continuous monitoring, I think they might have not been hit like that.”

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 have been no 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.

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 intensified in tit-for-tat.

South Korea’s defence 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 travelled to Russia to meet Putin and visit key military sites.

Foreign officials suspect Kim is seeking advanced Russian weapons technologies in return to boost his nuclear programme.

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 US and South Korean military movements and enhance the threat of his nuclear-capable missiles.

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

Source: The Associated Press