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South could suspend 2018 agreement if North launches satellite, warns official

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In this footage broadcast by Pyongyang's state-controlled Korean Central Television in March 2020, the North Korean military conducts a live artillery firing exercise. [YONHAP]
In this footage broadcast by Pyongyang’s state-controlled Korean Central Television in March 2020, the North Korean military conducts a live artillery firing exercise. [YONHAP]

South Korea could partially suspend a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement should the North conduct a third attempt to launch a spy satellite, sources said Tuesday.

“The government is considering suspending some provisions of the inter-Korean military agreement as a precautionary measure against North Korean provocations,” a senior government official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

The Comprehensive Military Agreement between Pyongyang and Seoul stipulated the establishment of buffer zones and no-fly zones near the inter-Korean border.

According to the agreement, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flights are not permitted within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of the western region of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) and 15 kilometers of the eastern region.

Artillery firing exercises, naval drills and surveillance activities are also not permitted in these areas to lower the risk of accidental clashes between the two Koreas.

But Seoul’s Unification Ministry has previously warned that elements of the agreement could limit the South Korean military’s readiness against North Korea by constraining aerial reconnaissance and training exercises.

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According to the official who spoke to the media, Seoul’s resumption of surveillance activities along the border would hinge on whether Pyongyang launches a military spy satellite.

“The government will comprehensively consider necessary measures while keeping close tabs on North Korea’s behavior,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told lawmakers earlier this month that the North is in the final stage of preparations to conduct a spy satellite launch, which the regime previously said it would do in October.

The North’s previous attempts in May and August failed.

The spy agency told lawmakers that the chances of the launch succeeding this time are higher, thanks to suspected Russian technological assistance after a rare summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September.

The summit and subsequent agreement where the two sides said they would strengthen ties gave rise to suspicions of potential exchanges of weapons and related technologies.

South Korea has condemned the North’s attempted and planned satellite launches as provocations and violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions, which ban Pyongyang from conducting launches that involve ballistic missile technology.

Defense Minister Shin Won-sik has repeatedly called for suspending the inter-Korean agreement since taking office last month.

In his remarks during a parliamentary audit session on Oct. 27, Shin said the North has explicitly violated the agreement 110 times in the past five years by firing artillery shells in the western maritime buffer zone.

He noted that the estimated number of the North’s violations is closer to 3,600 since the agreement was signed.

President Yoon Suk Yeol also warned in January that he would suspend the inter-Korean military agreement if North Korea intrudes into South Korean territory, a week after five North Korean drones infiltrated the South’s airspace.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]