Correction: The agreement was not to withdraw artillery, but to cease artillery training near the border between the two Koreas.
MELBOURNE, Australia — The agreements struck by leaders of North and South Korea at this week’s summit are important steps, which have the potential for significantly reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But ongoing verification that the agreements are being adhered to will be needed, according to experts.
The agreements, which cover a range of security issues on the volatile Peninsula that is still technically at war in the absence of a formal peace treaty, will see both North and South Korea declare a buffer and no-fly zone around the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, and waters that separate the two Koreas.
At the same time, North Korea has also agreed to permanently dismantle its Dongchang-ri missile launch platform and rocket engine-testing facility in the presence of international experts, as well as flagging the possibility of taking further measures such as permanently dismantling its main Yongbyon nuclear complex if certain conditions are met.
In addition, South Korean president Moon Jae-In also told reporters upon his return to the south that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is seeking a second summit with U.S. president Donald Trump, which Moon said should seek to produce a timeline for North Korea’s denuclearization. He also added that a peace declaration for the Korean Peninsula will be a step to build trust and not result in the withdrawal of U.S. forces in South Korea, with a full peace deal only possible after the North denuclearizes.
Korea watchers have cautiously welcomed the move by both sides to reduce their military presence at the DMZ and surrounding waters, which have seen several incidents and lethal clashes since the 1953 armistice. According to the agreement signed by both defense ministers, the two Koreas agreed to establish buffer zones along their land and sea borders to reduce military tensions and prevent accidental clashes, as well as to withdraw 11 guard posts from the DMZ by December with an aim to eventually withdraw all guard posts, where combat troops are stationed.
Speaking to Defense News, Kim Jae Yeop, visiting professor for defense & security issues at South Korea’s Hannam University Daejeon, Korea, said the agreements can be “substantially helpful for reducing military tensions and building trust in Korean Peninsula as long as Pyongyang faithfully honors the agreement, and therefore future verification [to ensure the agreement is being adhered to] will be very important.”
He also spelled out concerns in South Korea that the agreements may adversely affect its defense posture due to the prohibition of artillery training on the West Sea islands and near the DMZ, as well as large-scale naval maneuvers, to comply with the buffer zone. However South Korean military officials have said that more advanced strategic surveillance assets like the U.S. Air Force U-2 aircraft will not be affected due to their more powerful sensor suites.
Professor Kim also noted that given the North is estimated to have 6-8 times more artillery positioned near the agreed-upon maritime buffer zone, the agreements “will not negatively affect defense readiness at West Sea. On the contrary, it will be more effective to curb threats from North in the area.”
However, nuclear non-proliferation experts are more cautious about the agreements with regard to North Korean disarmament, noting that they still do not cover tests of the North’s mobile missiles or stop production or nuclear-related enrichment activities. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies noted that while the offer to dismantle the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon “would be welcome, it wouldn’t stop North Korea from expanding its arsenal.”
Explaining, Lewis pointed out that there is nothing to “prevent ongoing [intercontinental ballistic missile] production at Sanum-dong and elsewhere nor would it prevent North Korea from resuming ICBM tests which are conducted from mobile launchers.”
He also added that any dismantling of the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, which also contains North Korea’s 30-year old gas graphite reactor, would curtail the ongoing plutonium enrichment activities. He warned, however, that the North already has two other enrichment facilities elsewhere in the country with U.S. reports suggesting there may be a third that has yet to be identified. This could suggest the proposed closure of Yongbyon may not be as detrimental to the North’s nuclear program as was hoped, with Lewis suggesting that the North Koreans are “offering gestures that mimic disarmament [but] don’t meaningfully constrain North Korea’s nuclear program.”