During a visit to a 1950-53 Korean War battlefield Saturday, Defense Minister Suh Wook said military tensions on the peninsula have eased due to the implementation of an inter-Korean agreement signed two years ago.
In his inaugural speech the day before, South Korea’s new defense chief vowed to fully implement the 2018 military accord with North Korea in line with Seoul’s efforts to build lasting peace on the peninsula.
Signed on the occasion of President Moon Jae-in’s second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, the agreement calls for a series of trust-building and arms control measures as part of a broader understanding to halt all hostile acts against each other.
Among the measures is the joint excavation of remains in the Demilitarized Zone. During his visit to Arrowhead Hill in the DMZ in time for the second anniversary of the signing of the accord, Suh said he hoped the two Koreas would jointly excavate the area as soon as possible.
Suh’s appraisal of and commitment to the inter-Korean military pact seems out of tune with critical views held by many experts here about its actual consequences for the security of the South.
Critics note that the South has stuck to the agreement word for word, reducing surveillance and reconnaissance activities along the front line as well as naval and air operations, while the North remains deceitful and insincere.
Over the past two years, the recalcitrant regime has continued to refine its nuclear and missile capabilities. In June, the North strained ties with the South by blowing up a joint liaison office on its border town of Kaesong in anger over the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets by North Korean defectors and other activists here.
With the two sides showing asymmetric attitudes toward the military agreement, the readiness posture and discipline of South Korea’s armed forces appears to be slackening.
The new defense minister, who served as the Army chief of staff until being appointed to his current post, has repeatedly vowed to maintain a staunch readiness posture while fully implementing the inter-Korean military accord.
In the eyes of some critics, he is seen to be making incompatible pledges in keeping with the Moon administration’s preoccupation with inter-Korean reconciliation.
It is necessary now to make a cool-headed reevaluation of what has happened since the signing of the military agreement from a realistic viewpoint of national security.
Reconsideration also needs to be given to the hasty manner in which South Korea is pushing to retake the wartime operational control (OPCON) of its forces from the US.
The allies have agreed that the envisioned transfer is not time-based but conditions-based. But the Moon government appears bent on completing the transfer process before Moon’s five-year presidency ends in May 2022.
During their parliamentary confirmation hearings last week, Suh and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman nominee Won In-choul said they would strive to accelerate the wartime OPCON transfer to Seoul, which Suh said “is in the need of the times” and Won called a “long-held yearning” of the South Korean people.
With US-North Korea talks on denuclearizing the North stalled and inter-Korean ties strained, there seems to be little need now to be overly enthusiastic about fulfilling the transfer.
The necessary conditions for the transfer, as agreed earlier by Seoul and Washington, include South Korea having the capabilities to lead the allies’ combined defense mechanism and respond promptly to the North’s nuclear and missile threats. There must also be a stable security environment on the peninsula and in the region.
Security threats from Pyongyang are getting more serious and harder to cope with. There has been growing speculation that the North could test-fire a submarine-launched ballistic missile or show off a new kind of strategic weapon around Oct. 10, the 75th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Workers’ Party.
In technical terms, South Korea and the US remain behind schedule to carry out tests required for the wartime OPCON transfer.
The allies, which conducted an initial operational capability test last year, planned to move on to a full operational capability test this year but failed to do so, as they were compelled to scale down the summertime joint exercise due to the coronavirus pandemic. The FOC test should be followed by a full mission capability test.
The key tests cannot and should not be allowed to be conducted in a convenient way to get the transfer done before Moon leaves office.