SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s vice defense minister on Thursday called for North Korea to resume cooperation under a 2018 military agreement on reducing tensions, which the North has threatened to abandon over U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
The agreement, which created buffer zones along land and sea boundaries and no-fly zones above the border to prevent clashes, has been crucial in maintaining stability between the Koreas as their relations worsened in recent months, Vice Defense Minister Park Jae-min said in an interview with The Associated Press.
While there haven’t been major skirmishes, North Korea has held back from some critical parts of the agreement, including forming a joint military committee to maintain communication and avoid crisis situations and jointly searching for remains from the 1950-53 Korean War.
Since the collapse of its nuclear diplomacy with the Trump administration in 2019, North Korea has suspended all cooperation with South Korea and threatened to scrap the inter-Korean military agreement while expressing anger over the South’s joint military exercises with the United States, which it insists are invasion rehearsals. The allies describe the drills as defensive in nature but have downsized them in the past few years to provide space for diplomacy and because of COVID-19.
While it will be up to leaders and diplomats to persuade North Korea to go in a different direction, South Korea’s military is “thoroughly” prepared to push forward with inter-Korean military cooperation whenever diplomacy creates room for it, Park said.
"We are very hopeful that the North would respond to our calls to form the joint military committee,” Park said.
He said such a committee would allow both sides to move forward with an agenda agreed to in 2018 and also "explore other agendas to strengthen trust between the militaries.”
The inter-Korean military agreement is one of the few tangible remnants from South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s ambitious diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Moon's efforts helped set up Kim’s first summit with former U.S. President Donald Trump in June 2018.
The Korean leaders met three times that year, exchanging vague vows about a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and expressing ambitions to reboot inter-Korean engagement when possible, voicing optimism that international sanctions on North Korea could end and allow such projects.
But such hopes were crushed following the collapse of the second meeting between Kim and Trump in 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korean demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial reduction of its nuclear capabilities.
Critics say North Korea has already damaged the spirit of the inter-Korean military agreement with a series of belligerent acts in 2020. It blew up an empty inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong in June and its troops shot and killed a South Korean government official who was found drifting near their sea boundary in September.
While North Korea has suspended its testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that could hit the United States since 2018, it has tested various new short-range missile systems that experts say potentially expand its ability to deliver nuclear strikes at targets in South Korea, including U.S. military bases.
Park and other South Korean military officials plan to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue and other security matters with global counterparts during next month’s annual Seoul Defense Dialogue forum.
The Sept. 8-10 event in Seoul will involve military officials and experts from around 60 countries participating either in person or by video.
Park said there’s greater need for dialogue between military officials as the world faces an “unprecedented security crisis” in which traditional threats such as tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the heated competition between Washington and Beijing, and the turmoil in Afghanistan are coinciding with non-traditional threats such as COVID-19.
South Korea’s military has played a central role in its pandemic response, deploying thousands of medical personnel and troops to assist with tests, contact tracing and quarantine enforcement and providing hospitals and shelters to treat virus carriers.
Park said South Korean defense officials will share details of their experiences at the Seoul forum, where participants will explore the possible roles militaries could serve in fighting the virus and expanding international cooperation.
South Korean officials are also hoping to use the forum to pursue stronger military ties with European nations, including Britain. Officials are expecting a high-level British official, possibly Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, to attend the forum in person and participate in discussions to facilitate exchanges between the countries’ militaries and defense industries.
The Seoul Defense Dialogue will begin days after the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its strike group are to participate in planned training with the South Korean navy in waters near the country.
South Korea earlier this year confirmed its plans to build and deploy its first aircraft carrier by 2033 and some experts say the country may seek to tap into British experience in operating carriers.
“Regarding the aircraft carrier strike group, meetings are planned between people of both countries involved in related technologies and defense industries,” Park said.