During the second inter-Korean summit in 2007, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il discussed, among other issues, building military trust and establishing special peace and cooperation zones in the West Sea. In the years leading up to the summit, South and North Korean military officials spent considerable time discussing these issues, and for ROK officials one of their main goals was to create a framework at the summit for easing tensions in the area surrounding the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto boundary separating the two countries in the West Sea.
On paper at least, their efforts paid off. The Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Relations, Peace and Prosperity, released by both leaders at the conclusion of the summit, contained provisions related to such trust building steps in the West Sea. However, given the poor timing of the summit – just months before the end of Roh’s term – and the trends at the time, the declaration’s provisions were soon forgotten.
North Korea already had conducted its first nuclear test and a range of ballistic missile tests in 2006, the Six-Party Talks were floundering, and a conservative backlash in Seoul soon brought Lee Myung-bak to power in early 2008. Progressive ROK officials under Roh Moo-hyun bemoaned the fact that they had attempted to build a framework for military confidence building measures so late in the game. In the future, they said, such agreements would have to occur early on in a new president’s term of office to give them “time to take root and become part of an established strategic landscape before a new administration comes to office.”
Over the next decade, however, inter-Korean relations returned to a recurrent cycle of heightened tension, provocations, and the threat of escalation: the March 2010 sinking of the ROK naval corvette Cheonan – sunk by a North Korean submarine-fired torpedo – and November 2010 North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, resulting in four dead and over a dozen wounded; the August 2015 maiming of two ROK soldiers by a North Korean landmine and subsequent artillery exchange between the two Koreas across the DMZ; and, from 2016-2017, North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing cycle culminating in Pyongyang’s launch of its Hwasong-15 – theoretically capable of ranging the entire continental U.S. – amidst reciprocal threats of nuclear escalation between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
When nuclear threats suddenly turned to diplomatic engagement in early 2018, officials in the administration of President Moon Jae-in wasted little time in moving back toward a framework for tension reduction and trust building; not only in the West Sea but across the entire length of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). After laying groundwork at the third and fourth inter-Korean summits in April and May of 2018, respectively, President Moon and Kim Jong-un signed the Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain, otherwise known as the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA).
Under the CMA, both Koreas agreed to implement several military confidence-building measures in the air, land, and sea domains. Maritime security measures included a buffer zone along both the NLL in the West Sea and eastern maritime limit in the East Sea, prohibiting naval maneuvers and live-fire artillery drills in these waters. In the air domain, a range of military No Fly Zones were established in the eastern and western regions of the MDL, with live-fire drills and the use of air-to-ground guided weapons barred within them. And, on the ground, the two agreed to a 10km buffer zone surrounding the MDL and prevention of live-fire artillery drills or field training exercises within that space. The CMA also provided additional measures involving the phased withdrawal of Guard Posts (GP) from the DMZ and emphasized maintaining lines of communication and clearly delineated procedures to prevent any accidental military clash at all times in every domain.
Unsurprisingly, ROK conservatives expressed displeasure with the CMA as part of a broader critique of the Moon administration’s policy toward Pyongyang. The CMA, they argued, reduced ROK military preparedness in the face of a still existing (and even advancing) North Korean threat. Furthermore, they contended, North Korea itself showed little to no interest in it after the failed Hanoi Summit in February of 2019 and had even begun to violate it – or at least the spirit of it – with its return to missile tests that Spring and various incidents thereafter. Such criticisms only grew as the diplomatic stalemate worsened and Pyongyang continued to advance its capabilities.
Although President Yoon and officials in his administration came into office committed to bolstering preparedness and ROK and alliance military exercises, they did not openly argue for scrapping the CMA. It may not have become part of the established strategic landscape, as ROK progressives may have hoped, but it was holding up if tenuously.
However, in the face of widespread expectations for a seventh North Koran nuclear test, Pyongyang’s unprecedented missile testing campaign, and, most notably, its repeated firing over the last week of hundreds of artillery shells into the maritime buffer zones established by the CMA, conservatives have increased calls for Yoon to consider scrapping the agreement. Alongside with the firing of artillery, North Korean aircraft have flown within 5km of the No Fly Zone designated under the CMA. For Seoul, this appears to be pushing the envelope, but for North Korea it may be its way of enforcing that aspect of the agreement on their own side of things. For its part, North Korea has justified its actions as a response to ongoing ROK and U.S.-ROK alliance military exercises in the area, which, while close to the inter-Korean border, have not encroached on the CMA-designated buffer zones. For South Korea, though, it is worth asking what the risks are of adhering to the CMA versus abrogating it.
The answers are unclear because they rest in the eye of the beholder. For Yoon, scrapping the CMA may be an avenue for upholding flagging approval ratings. It is uncertain and probably unlikely that doing so would help him beyond his base. But adhering to it, particularly in the face of repeated and flagrant North Korean violations, may hurt him with the roughly 30% of respondents who still support him. For Yoon’s more conservative supporters, adhering to the CMA in the face of Pyongyang’s violations would only serve to embolden it. It would appear feckless and weak in the face of yet another case of North Korean revanchism.
Alternatively, abrogating the CMA could also relinquish the Yoon administration’s advantage in the court of international public opinion. Pyongyang may be aiming for just such an outcome. Despite clearly violating the provisions of the CMA, North Korea has exhibited a degree of restraint in the process, firing within the buffer zones but north of the NLL thus avoiding South Korean waters and not officially confirming that the CMA is moot. If Yoon officially abrogates the CMA before North Korea, the latter likely will use it as an excuse to further tar Yoon with the same escalatory brush. Given Seoul’s markedly increased military exercises and heated rhetoric about preemption, such a move may sufficiently muddle outside perceptions. It could create the impression of equivalency between the two sides and justify further escalation on Pyongyang’s part. Pyongyang’s violation of the CMA in deed but not yet in word appears a means to force Yoon’s hand.
For the pro-engagement crowd in South Korea, maintaining the CMA is key but for different reasons. If Yoon maintains it to strongly differentiate Pyongyang as an international scofflaw and to further confront North Korea, progressives want it upheld because of the difficulty of establishing it to begin with. It takes time and a fortuitous mixture of forces on and around the Korean Peninsula, which do not come around often. Furthermore, if it is fully scrapped, it becomes one more agreement tossed aside, increasing frustration and a sense of futility in dealing with Pyongyang. That feeling is already rife in Washington, DC. It makes restitching another similar arrangement in the future that much more difficult. Were Seoul to officially maintain the CMA, it could point to such fidelity as a sign of its credibility were North Korea ever willing to come back to the negotiating table and renter the agreement once again.
The crux of the problem for Yoon is that he faces domestic forces, which approach North Korea from diametrically opposing positions. Both sides believe they can affect North Korean agency, yet in clashing ways – one through pressure, the other by engagement. The truth is that they are both right but also both wrong. North Korea will do what it will do because of its own independent choices. This is a lesson neither Washington nor Seoul seems to have fully embraced. The difficulty for Yoon is that he must thread the needle between being simultaneously robust yet restrained, and do so within a messy and contested democracy. Kim Jong-un faces domestic constraints, but this is not one of them. And it is also what sets South Korea apart from the North. Seoul can and should uphold the CMA, officially and forcefully state it is doing so, and while continuing to urge Pyongyang to honor the accord make very clear that North Korean aggression will be met with a firm and swift response, as it well should be.
Clint Work is a Fellow and Director of Academic Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
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