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[Herald Interview] Former combined forces No. 2 defends pact with N. Korea

Rep. Kim Byung-joo. (Kim’s office)
Rep. Kim Byung-joo. (Kim’s office)
Kim Byung-joo, former deputy commander of the ROK-US Combined Forces Command, said South Korea should manage military tensions to prevent them from getting out of control, while remaining on guard against aggression from North Korea.

Despite the North’s escalating threats to undo all the progress both sides have made toward peace and reconciliation, Seoul should continue to honor its agreements with Pyongyang, he added.

“Returning to confrontation would further jeopardize the safety of our people here, and scuttle the hard-won momentum for dialogue the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics ushered in,” Kim, a commander-turned-lawmaker who now sits on the parliamentary defense committee, said.

“The top priority here is to not let the unfolding situation grow into a bigger crisis,” Kim added.

The first-term lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea praised the military pact signed in September 2018 by the South’s Moon Jae-in and the North’s Kim Jong-un -- for stopping accidental military encounters at the border from spiraling into armed clashes.

But Pyongyang has said it is withdrawing from the pact, and has already put its words into action by sending troops to restore border guard posts it had removed under the deal.

“The two sides, since signing the pact, have yet to have a visible military clash,” Kim said.

Yet on May 3 the two Koreas exchanged gunfire in the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas, when the North opened fire on one of the South’s guard posts.

The United Nations Command, which handles DMZ affairs, did not accuse the North of provoking the South but said both sides had violated the armistice agreement.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry, while saying the North’s action was probably accidental, raised objections to the UNC decision, saying the South had responded appropriately by returning fire.

Kim also called Pyongyang’s action unintentional, saying the military accord helped to prevent additional confrontations from developing.

The legislator, when asked how intent Pyongyang had seemed on upholding the bilateral military deal, mentioned that the communist regime had punished those responsible for the incident in May, referring to local news reports.

The Daily NK, a defector-run North Korea website, reported June 1 citing unnamed military sources in Pyongyang that the soldiers who opened fire had been suspended for six months and their commanders had received warnings.

“If those reports were true, that would be evidence of Pyongyang’s determination to honor the pact,” Kim said.

The former deputy commander strongly denied claims that the military accord hurt the combined forces’ joint readiness or the S. Korea-US security alliance.

Since signing the pact in 2018, Seoul has not overseen any large-scale artillery drills on islands near the maritime border in the West Sea. Since tensions have grown more intense recently, the South’s military has reportedly halted even shooting drills there.

“Then-Cmdr. Vincent Brooks and I not only reviewed the potential impact of the deal on our forces’ readiness, but also drew up countermeasures in response to the unexpected fallout,” Kim said, without elaborating on the countermeasures.

Inter-Korean ties could have been much better, he said, had the National Assembly ratified the Panmunjom Declaration, the outcome of the very first summit between Moon and Kim Jong-un in April 2018.

As for the status of the S. Korea-US security alliance, the politician said the joint forces’ readiness against North Korea was unmistakable and that the alliance was watertight.

“Without strength, peace is short-lived,” Kim said, adding that Moon’s “peace through strength” drive would expedite a thaw in inter-Korean relations and bring the two rivals closer to reconciliation. Moon has said the military had a mission to seek peace through strength.

“Pyongyang comes out for talks when we’re strong. And it walks away when we aren’t,” Kim said.

By Choi Si-young (
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