There are both positive and negative developments regarding efforts to reduce military tension between the two Koreas. The problem is that negatives outnumber and outsize the positives.
To speak of the most recent positive development first, the two Koreas’ navies resumed ship-to-ship radio communications in the West Sea on Sunday. It was the first time in 10 years that the two sides conducted such maritime communication. The radio link could help the two sides avoid accidental clashes that had often taken place in the West Sea.
The radio connection was the latest in a series of actions the two Koreas have taken in line with the agreement made by President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in their two recent summits.
In line with the agreement to reduce military tensions and remove the risk of war, the two Koreas had already ceased cross-border propaganda broadcasts and held generals’ talks. There were unconfirmed news reports that the two sides were also discussing pulling back long-range artillery from the border areas.
The most notable development, which came after the historic Singapore summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim last month, is the suspension of joint South Korea-US military exercises. The allies have already called off the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill which otherwise would start next month and smaller-scale joint drills of the South Korean and US marines. There have been reports that South Korean forces are also moving to scale down or call off some of their own regular exercises.
It might be reasonable for South Korea and the US to make such moves if the North were fulfilling its denuclearization commitment and taking corresponding measures to reduce military tensions on the peninsula. But as we all know, this is not the case.
The bigger problem is that the South Korean military is taking some actions that could irreversibly weaken its defense posture.
Defense Ministry officials said they put off construction plans for new barracks and positions for K-9 howitzers in the areas near the border in preparation for a possible agreement with North Korea to pullback frontline forces. Altogether, construction work at about 90 to 100 frontline units is said to be affected.
There also have been reports that the reconciliatory mood is affecting the South Korean military’s mid-term and long-term weapons development and acquisition programs as well, including those for the “Cheolmae” intermediate-range surface-to-air missile and the K-2 tanks.
All these premature actions come at a time when the North is apparently dragging its feet on the commitment to “complete denuclearization” Kim made both to Moon and Trump.
One good example for the North’s delaying tactic is that besides the demolition of a nuclear test site and work to repatriate the remains of American soldiers who were killed in the Korean War, there has been no progress on denuclearization.
In Singapore, Trump said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would start talks with his North Korean counterpart the following week. The belated Pompeo visit to North Korea has been set for Thursday.
The White House announcement on the secretary’s three-day visit to Pyongyang was preceded by reports from the Washington Post and other US media that raised the suspicion that the North was unwilling to fully dismantle its nuclear program and seeking to conceal the number of nuclear warheads. The North is also seeking to hide the existence of undisclosed facilities used to make fissile material for nuclear bombs, the reports said.
US national security adviser John Bolton said that Pompeo, during his third trip to Pyongyang, would discuss measures to dismantle weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles “in one year.” But the latest developments show that the US would not be able to go through with the plan.
This means it may take longer than Moon or Trump expect to fully remove threats from North Korean nuclear missiles and other weapons of mass destruction. It therefore is too risky to have a blind faith in the North’s commitment to denuclearization and removal of the danger of war on the peninsula. It still is too early to take premature actions that could create irreparable loopholes in the combat capability of our military.