Suspending Military Deal With North Korea Would Do More Harm Than Good: Experts
Member Activities

Suspending Military Deal With North Korea Would Do More Harm Than Good: Experts


APLN member Jina Kim was quoted in NK News, where she commented on the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA). She agreed that the CMA represented ‘a step forward from previous measures’ by implementing ‘structural arms control,’ albeit on a limited basis. Read the original post on the NK News website here.

Seoul’s new defense minister compared South Korea to Israel in apparent bid to scrap Comprehensive Military Agreement.

South Korea’s new defense minister, who was inaugurated over the weekend, repeated his pledge on Tuesday to suspend a 2018 military agreement with North Korea “as soon as possible,” in the clearest indicator to date that the landmark deal’s days may be numbered.

Speaking to local media on Tuesday, Shin Won-shik also compared South Korea to Israel in an apparent bid to justify the scrapping of the military agreement.

Shin described Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel as a result of failed reconnaissance, comparing it to the inter-Korean situation — but claimed that South Korea faces a much worse threat than what Israel is under.

“Hamas attacked [Israel], but in fact, the ROK is under a much graver threat” than Israel is under, Shin said. “If [Israel] continued surveilling through aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, it would not have suffered from that much of damage,” Shin stated.

“And the things such as the no-fly-zone that the Comprehensive Military Agreement has set up — it limits [Seoul’s] surveillance to see signs of imminent provocation at North Korea’s border region.”

But despite Shin’s effort to compare Hamas with North Korea and gain further momentum to suspend the inter-Korean agreement, a half dozen think tank leaders, academics and security analysts interviewed by NK News expressed concerns that Shin Won-sik’s push to unilaterally scrap the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) could eliminate guardrails against violence.

Some also stated that a suspension could reduce Seoul’s potential leverage with Pyongyang or serve as a propaganda tool for the DPRK, despite the fact that North Korea has repeatedly breached the deal.

“Scrapping the CMA would be a mistake,” Ramon Pacheco Pardo, KF-VUB Korea chair at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, told NK News. “While it is true that North Korea has not adhered to the spirit of the agreement, there is no real evidence that it has affected South Korea’s military readiness in any substantial way.”

Toby Dalton, senior fellow and co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment, agreed that it would be “a poor idea to scrap or suspend arrangements that still provide some utility in preventing incidents that could become crises, especially in the current climate.”

Andrew Yeo, SK-Korea Foundation chair at the Brookings Institution, said keeping the CMA would also benefit South Korea in the international arena.

“Even though North Korea has breached the CMA over a dozen times, keeping the agreement may still be strategically useful in that it would clearly highlight who the aggressor is in this relationship,” Yeo told NK News.

Former South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed the CMA during their summit in Pyongyang in Sept. 2018, in a bid to reduce military tensions and prevent accidental skirmishes along the border.

Under the deal, both Koreas agreed to set up aerial and maritime buffer zones, ban live-fire drills using artillery and coastal guns and partially withdraw guard posts from the border.

However, debate about the agreement’s utility has intensified over the last year, as North Korea has fired artillery into the maritime buffer zone and sent drones into South Korean airspace in violation of the CMA.

Defense minister nominee Shin Won-sik has argued the CMA “primarily benefits North Korea and is largely unfavorable” for Seoul.

He was critical of the Moon administration during his confirmation hearing, saying it placed too much trust in North Korea’s promises to denuclearize and signed the CMA prematurely and started tenure by emphasizing “punishing” the DPRK’s military aggressions, while visiting the country’s frontline army division facing North Korea on Monday.

“Shin’s criticism that the CMA did not contribute to peace or denuclearization is probably the wrong metric for judging its value,” Dalton of Carnegie told NK News, suggesting it’s better to assess whether it has and still does “mitigate the potential” for a crisis.

He positively assessed CMA measures like removing guard posts and, most importantly, setting up inter-Korean flight buffer areas.

Such measures “actually achieved more in terms of reducing the potential for escalatory incidents,” he said.

Jina Kim, a defense analyst at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, agreed that the CMA was “a step forward from previous measures in that it implemented ‘structural arms control,’” albeit on a limited basis.

“Having the CMA is better than not having one,” she said. “It serves as a stepping stone in establishing a crisis management channel between South and North Korea. Also, drawing a new agreement at the leader-to-leader level will probably be more difficult in the future between the two Koreas.”

Yeo of Brookings agreed that the CMA has provided “some guardrails to reduce risks and prevent mishaps from spiraling out of control along the inter-Korean border.”

“Of course, on the downside, if the CMA exists only on paper and not in practice, future agreements intended to reduce conflict between North and South Korea may not be taken seriously.”


While most experts argued against suspending the CMA, some said they understand why the Yoon administration has called into question the value of the 2018 agreement.

But these experts also raised concerns about how North Korea would respond and the possibility of losing a source of leverage with Pyongyang.

Jo Bee-yun, associate research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, told NK News that scrapping the CMA “could serve as a display of South Korea’s determination to confront and respond to North Korea’s evident disregard for the terms of the agreement.”

Seoul may view a suspension as a “logical step” given that it appears unlikely the DPRK will uphold the agreement going forward, she added.

But Jo also drew attention to downsides that Seoul should be aware of.

“Suspending the agreement could invite an escalatory response from the DPRK. Moreover, questions arise regarding the timing of such a suspension, prompting one to ask whether this is the right moment for Seoul to make this decision,” she said.

“I believe that while there are clear strategic implications in suspending an already violated agreement, it is necessary to find a way to maximize its effect through strategic consideration of the timing and method.”

Bruce Bennett, a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, warned against unilateral South Korean action that would give up leverage the CMA provides against North Korea.

He suggested that South Korea could urge North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons production within a certain timeframe “or the ROK will scrap or suspend the CMA — or parts thereof that the ROK dislikes.”

“I doubt that the North will do a freeze,” Bennett said. “But the ROK should at least try to leverage the North. Such South Korean government action would help the ROK people know that the North is an intransigent bad actor and that the ROK needs greater security against North Korean threats.”

Dalton similarly assessed that the CMA, while “never fully realized in its implementation,” could be a “useful building block toward a more comprehensive conventional arms control framework.”

If the agreement prevents South Korea and the U.S. from improving their security, then it is worthwhile to consider suspending it, Dalton said.

“But you’d also need to ask: What might North Korea do in response — and will its response leave us better or worse off?”


Another concern is that unilaterally suspending the CMA  would play into North Korea’s hand, experts said, interpreting the Yoon administration’s messaging on the deal as driven by domestic politics rather than military realities.

“South Korea scrapping the CMA would be a propaganda coup for North Korea without any discernible benefit for Seoul,” he told NK News. “South Korea could even be portrayed as being ‘against peace’ and confidence-building measures by canceling the agreement.”

Some experts noted that the Yoon administration’s push to scrap the deal appears in part about differentiating himself from progressive predecessor Moon Jae-in. Yoon has called the CMA a product of Moon’s “fake peace” diplomacy that offered too many concessions to North Korea, only for Pyongyang not to keep its promises.

But Pacheco Pardo said canceling the CMA is unlikely to benefit Yoon politically because “it seems to be a non-issue except for a small group within the conservative camp.”

Gallup Korea surveys have repeatedly found that only a small minority of South Koreans take defense issues into account when rating the government performance. A KSOI poll conducted after the 2022 presidential election showed only 4% of voters viewed inter-Korean policy as a major issue.

“At a time of generally high tension on the peninsula, walking away from an agreement whose implementation is probably doing little harm — and could actually be doing some good — seems a tactically unfortunate choice, especially if it is mainly politics that is driving that choice,” Dalton said.

He added that the U.S. would likely “prefer the status quo with the current CMA, however precarious it might be, then to return to a more active border management posture.”

“That said, provided there is an active consultation process between Washington and Seoul about the agreement, such that U.S. Forces can prepare for any DPRK responses, then I would imagine Washington would go along with Seoul’s preference on the CMA.”

Image: South Korea and North Korea sign the Comprehensive Military Agreement on Sept. 19, 2018 | Image: Joint Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps, edited by NK News

Related Articles