By Kelsey Davenport
The tenuous relationship between North and South Korea deteriorated further after Seoul announced its intention to suspend part of a joint military agreement in response to Pyongyang’s illegal launch of a satellite in November. North Korea responded by terminating its participation entirely. It later announced that unification with South Korea is no longer a viable policy goal.
South Korea announced on Nov. 22 that it will no longer abide by a no-fly zone established over the border area between the two Koreas in the Comprehensive Military Agreement. That agreement, concluded in September 2018 between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, also contains restrictions on guard posts and live-fire exercises near the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries.
The move by South Korea to rescind the no-fly zone component of the agreement in response to the satellite launch does not come as a surprise. South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik repeatedly has raised concerns about the agreement limiting South Korea’s ability to conduct surveillance and threatened to withdraw if North Korea launched a satellite.
Later on Nov. 22, North Korea’s Central Military Commission responded to the South Korean announcement, saying that, “from now on [North Korea] will never be bound” by the 2018 agreement. The commission said that North Korea will “immediately restore all military measures” that were halted by the agreement.
The commission blamed the collapse of the agreement and heightened tensions on South Korea, saying Seoul is creating the “most dangerous situation” and will be “wholly accountable” if conflict breaks out between the two countries.
Since Nov. 22, the two sides have redeployed additional soldiers along the demarcation line and taken steps to restore guard posts that were not in use under the agreement.
Although not directly referencing the agreement, Moon appeared to criticize the current South Korean government for revoking the agreement and its hard-line approach. In a Dec. 10 post on Facebook, Moon said that “abandoning agreements” and dialogue has “only hastened the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.”
In addition to withdrawing from the miltiary agreement, Kim suggested that unification of the Korean peninsula is “impossible,” departing from a long-standing policy goal of uniting the two countries. In remarks on Dec. 31, he said that “reunification can never be achieved,” given South Korea’s goal of absorbing North Korea into its democracy, and that the two countries are no longer “homogenous.”
Kim Yung-ho, the South Korean minister of unification, disputed the claim that unification is impossible. In a Jan. 1 speech, he said that Seoul will work to establish a “master plan” for unification and warned that Kim Jong Un is trying to “suppress” South Korea.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un announced further plans to accelerate the production of nuclear warheads and launch an additional three surveillance satellites in 2024. Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea started operating a nuclear reactor in late 2023 that would provide additional fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Dec. 21 that the agency observed signs consistent with commissioning what may be a light-water reactor at the Yongbyong nuclear complex.
North Korea justified its military actions and nuclear expansion as a necessary response to the United States.
During a UN Security Council meeting on Nov. 27, Kim Song, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, said that it is North Korea’s “legitimate right…to develop, test, manufacture, and possess weapons systems equivalent to those that the United States already possess.”
The Security Council meeting was convened to discuss North Korea’s Nov. 21 satellite launch. Pyongyang is prohibited from launching satellites under council resolutions because the rockets utilize technologies common in ballistic missiles.
Kim said that the sanctions are “illegal and unlawful” and it is necessary for North Korea to pursue satellites to “get a clear picture of the dire military moves” of the United States.
The Security Council did not take any formal action to respond to North Korea’s activities due to continued resistance from Russia and China.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield asked the council “how many more times” it must gather in response to illegal North Korean activities before China and Russia “join us in demanding [that North Korea] abandon its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.”
During the meeting, Russia denied accusations that it provided North Korea with any technical military assistance.
Anna Evstigneeva, Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, called the allegations “groundless” during the council meeting and said that attempts to “vilify” Russia reflect a desire to “divert” the council’s attention from “the United States’ ambitions to strangle Pyongyang at any cost.”
She said that Russia “does not support steps by either side that run counter to the objectives of establishing long-term peace in the region…[but that it] does not come as a surprise” that North Korea would take steps in the “interests of self-defense.”
Thomas-Greenfield disputed the idea that North Korea is reacting to U.S. military activities. She said Pyongyang is “unabashedly trying to advance its nuclear weapons delivery systems by testing ballistic missile technology” and warned that the “reckless, unlawful behavior” is a threat. She reiterated the Biden administration’s “call for dialogue on any topic” with North Korea.
As the United States urges dialogue with North Korea, it continues to take steps to strengthen its alliance with South Korea. The two countries met on Dec. 15 for a second meeting of the Nuclear Consultative Group, which was announced when South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met with U.S. President Joe Biden in April. (See ACT, May 2023.)
In a joint statement following the Dec. 15 meeting, the United States and South Korea reiterated that “any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies is unacceptable and will result in the end of the Kim regime.”
The Dec. 16 statement noted that U.S. and South Korean officials acknowledged that “nuclear deterrence cooperation deepened” through the Nuclear Consultative Group process. It said that the United States and South Korea “reviewed the enhanced visibility of strategic assets to bolster extended deterrence” and discussed “future plans to demonstrate a strengthening of deterrence.”
In a Dec. 17 statement published in the state-run Korean Central News Agency, a spokesperson from the North Korean Defense Ministry described the work of the Nuclear Consultative Group as “an open declaration on nuclear confrontation.”
The spokesperson accused South Korea and the United States of “maximizing the tension in and around the Korean peninsula with hostile and provocative acts” against North Korea and said the move “pressurizes our armed forces to opt for more offensive countermeasure[s].”
The following day, North Korea tested what appears to be a solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on a lofted trajectory from near Pyongyang. North Korea last tested an ICBM in July.