Reducing Risk: What Inter-Korean Military Talks Need to Address

The DMZ on the Korean peninsula

Major General (ret.) Mats Engman identifies key risk management measures which could bring constructive developments to the renewed Inter-Korean military talks. Mats Engman is former Head of the Swedish delegation to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). He recently joined ISDP as a Distinguished Military Fellow. 

The overall security situation on the Korean Peninsula is very fragile. Serious and necessary attention is accorded to the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and related long-range missile development. However, insufficient attention has been given to the risk of conventional military threats – which remain substantial.

The border area, including the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, contains probably the largest concentration of conventional military forces in the world. Most of those forces are on high alert. Even a small incident risks escalating into a serious security challenge, especially in the absence of risk management mechanisms, and during periods of high tension.

Several incidents involving the use of military force have and will likely occur in the de-militarized zone. The recent defection of a North Korean soldier, who managed to escape to South Korea while being fired at by North Korea, is a case in point. This time the incident was contained by professional and disciplined soldiers, on both sides. Next time there is no guarantee this will be the case.

Military Talks

With the announcement in January of military-to-military talks between North and South Korea, there is an opportunity to bring up some of these conventional military risks. What then could the military talks address?

As the overall and ultimate objective from the international community, including South Korea, is for North Korea to denuclearize, there will be strong pressure to make this the core issue. However, it is highly unlikely that North Korea would accept nuclear issues to be part of these initial talks. Indeed, its nuclear capability is an existential issue closely linked to state survival. As such, North Korea has claimed that its nuclear status is non-negotiable.

More realistically, the focus of these talks should instead be to create an atmosphere of transparency and build a common understanding of the importance for these talks to continue. Moreover, they should aim for an agreement on a phased and incremental approach to risk reduction and risk management, and offer up some practical and concrete measures.

As these talks will inevitably be difficult, it may be advisable to start examining previously agreed procedures, activities, and arrangements, with a focus on information exchanges and implementing armistice-related provisions.

Risk Reduction

Indeed, the Armistice Agreement from 1953 provides a political and legal framework for both parties. While not a formal signatory having been under UN Command, South Korea nonetheless follows and implements its provisions. North Korea, on the other hand, has announced on several occasions that it does not recognise parts of the agreement.

As almost no common activity between North and South Korea relating to the Armistice Agreement has taken place for almost 20 years, any joint activity pertaining to it will have to be a gradual re-introduction.

A small, initial step could be to mutually agree to discontinue the loudspeaker operations that have been ongoing on both sides of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) since early 2016. A similar agreement was reached in 2004, in fact.

Another proposal would be for both parties to agree to routinely inform each other of upcoming major exercises and major weapons testing, specifically missile tests. This would also be in line with the Armistice Agreement and the protocols of both the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Arguably more significant still would be if North Korea re-engaged itself in armistice-related activities within, for example, the framework of the Military Armistice Commission (MAC), and if it would accept the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) to resume fulfilling its tasks on the North Korean side. The latter was established as an independent and impartial entity within the Armistice Agreement to supervise the implementation of the Agreement, on both sides.

One initial confidence-building step in this regard would be to allow the NNSC to conduct education and training for the Korean People’s Army (KPA) on how armistice-related issues are conducted in South Korea.

Another practical activity would be to try to engage North Korea in a project to correctly mark the MDL separating the two Koreas. Today we know that this border is not correctly marked in the terrain and that most of the markers initially set up in 1953-54 are no longer visible. This creates misunderstandings which may lead to shots being fired.

Yet another potential area for discussion could be in the maritime domain. Over the years several very serious incidents and attacks have occurred in the Yellow Sea and close to the Northern Limit Line (NLL) – a line unilaterally established by the then UN Commander to primarily stop U.S. and South Korean naval vessels from crossing north of the line. Today it is not recognized by North Korea but is considered as a state border by South Korea, a situation which obviously generates tension. Discussing naval risk reduction mechanisms including a moratorium on live firing exercises in the area, could be a way to mitigate some of the current risks.

Looking Ahead

The above represent just a few examples of relatively low-cost confidence-building measures that could potentially be acceptable to both sides should there be a genuine interest in the value of such.

However, for any such formula of military talks to succeed, strategic communication and expectation management is vitally important. Without the support of the majority of the population in South Korea and the international community at large, it will be very difficult for President Moon and his administration to sustain military-to-military talks. Keeping North Korea on board in such talks would also be in question if, when, and how joint military exercises with the U.S. – currently postponed until after the Olympics – are resumed.

Challenges aside, military-to-military talks between the two Koreas could be an important starting point for risk reduction agreements. If successful, they could quell tensions and lower military risks between not only the two Koreas, but also between North Korea and the international community. This could also lead to an increase in trust between the parties – a necessary precondition to address the long-term issue of denuclearization.

Major General (ret.) Mats Engman is former Head of the Swedish delegation to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). He recently joined ISDP as a Distinguished Military Fellow.