The Comprehensive Military Agreement and South Korea’s Maritime Security
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The Comprehensive Military Agreement and South Korea’s Maritime Security

Interview with Daniel Phillip Connolly
May 28, 2020

In 2018 the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) signed the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA), which created a maritime buffer zone between the two states. The peace zone was intended to prevent inadvertent collisions at sea and ensure safe fishing activities. However, some observers have expressed concerns that the CMA lowered South Korea’s naval readiness, even as North Korea continues its maritime provocations. Others argue that the CMA was successful in lowering tensions around the Northern Limit Line (NLL) and preventing military clashes near the borders.

Sanghoon Kim spoke with Daniel Phillip Connolly from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul about the implications of the CMA for South Korea’s maritime security.

What is your overall assessment of the effectiveness of the CMA so far? Do you agree with the argument that it has reduced South Korea’s military readiness?

Any agreement between two countries to reduce military tensions will inevitably reduce military readiness. The question is whether the reduction is excessive enough to significantly weaken national security. I do not believe that the CMA is adversely affecting South Korea.

One of the underlying issues that is not often mentioned is that many of the maritime clashes involve access to fishing resources. Indeed, a large part of the CMA is dedicated to creating a joint fishing area, which suggests that fishing-related issues are at the heart of North and South Korean maritime insecurities at the local level.

The controversy surrounding a North Korean fishing vessel entering a South Korean port in 2019 was certainly embarrassing for ROK military officials. However, the debates about military readiness are linked to South Korean domestic politics. A similar controversy erupted in 2012 when a North Korean soldier defected by crossing the Demilitarized Zone unnoticed by the South Korean military. Therefore, it is hard to establish a relationship between recent incidents and a lowered readiness posture.

Moreover, we should not overlook the practical difficulties of tracing the movement of small wooden vessels, especially in such crowded waters. According to Japanese media reports, at least 156 suspected North Korean fishing vessels were found washed up on the Japanese coast in 2019. In that regard, the CMA, by trying to demilitarize disagreements over the management of fishing resources, could contribute to preventing a naval clash.

Since 2015, North Korea has been militarizing front-line uninhabited islands such as Gal, Ari, and Hambak. Is the militarization of unmanned islands a violation of the CMA, and what impact does it have on South Korea’s maritime security?

The construction of radar facilities on Hambak and possible artillery positions on Gal is a violation of the spirit of the CMA. Both sides agreed to cease all live fire, halt maritime maneuver exercises, and place barrel caps on coastal artillery and ship guns. The whole purpose of the agreement was to reduce tensions, and North Korea’s military buildup on these small islands may be viewed by South Korea as escalatory. However, the CMA does not necessarily say anything about building new fortifications, and I cannot emphasize enough the need to look at this issue symmetrically or reflexively.

South Korea has formidable conventional naval superiority over North Korea. Although it is hard to determine the exact status of the North Korean fleet, it is not a peer competitor with the South. At best, it is a coastal defense force that can seek to deny access to offshore waters to a much stronger U.S.-ROK naval presence. Moreover, highlighting the controversial nature of North Korean deployments on these islands serves to obscure the wider controversy of the NLL, a maritime boundary that North Korea has never acknowledged.

In sum, militarization of small islands is a violation of the spirit of the CMA, but we should view this in the context of the balance of power between the two sides. North Korea’s naval strength is incomparable to that of South Korea, and the disagreement over the NLL is a much more important issue.

The NLL was promulgated in 1953 by the UN commander. How would a prospective peace treaty affect the legal status of the maritime boundary?

The NLL was declared by a U.S. officer, and in the 1970s South Korea and the United States differed in their interpretations. While the United States saw it as a de facto operational line, South Korea saw the line as territorial. At a time when the United States and its allies have criticized China for making arbitrary boundaries in the South China Sea, we need to be self-critical about the NLL. It can be argued that the NLL is needed to defend South Korean islands. But when we look at similar situations around the world, maritime boundaries are drawn around the islands so that neighboring countries still have privileges such as access to fishing zones.

In short, the NLL is not fair. The fact that the two sides have an armistice and are still technically at war justifies this temporary demarcation because it reflects lines of control. But North Korea has always complained about the NLL because it denies the country access to fishing resources. Given the long history of militarized disputes around the NLL, this unilaterally declared maritime demarcation line must be renegotiated as part of any future peace treaty.

In this regard, the CMA could have a long-term positive spillover effect as a precedent of lowering tensions surrounding the NLL. Joint fishing zones, joint fishing patrols, and demilitarized or at least restricted military exercises can create mutual understanding that could help renegotiate the maritime boundary in the event of a future peace treaty.

The annual exercises between the United States and South Korea have been integrated into a smaller-scale exercise called Dong Maeng. What is the impact of the scaled-down exercises on the readiness of the combined forces?

It is undeniable that scaled-down exercises have adversely affected military readiness. However, we need to put this in perspective by comparing it to North Korea’s levels of readiness. While it is difficult to know exactly how many hours North Korean pilots train, I have seen numbers as low as 7 to 25 hours per year. By comparison, South Korean pilots have over a hundred hours a year. In 2018 the U.S. Air Force set a goal of giving its pilots 20 training hours a month. In other words, the gap between the two sides is so immense that I do not think we should overstate the issue of readiness levels. Some commentators appear to conflate maximalist pressure on the North Korean regime with the defense of the ROK, but these are not the same.

The traditional cycle of U.S.-ROK military exercises involved tens of thousands of troops and the visit of strategic assets such as nuclear bombers to the peninsula. Once again, I must emphasize the need for symmetry in how we view this issue. Why is it that a few short-range ballistic missiles fired in the East Sea are taken as an illegal and aggressive provocation, but exercises like 2016’s Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, which involved 17,000 U.S. troops and 300,000 ROK troops, are viewed as unprovocative? The U.S.-ROK combined exercise even included simulations of decapitation attacks on North Korea’s leadership. The United States and South Korea would call these exercises defensive, but North Korea would call its provocations defensive as well.

It is also important to note that last year’s Dong Maeng exercise simulated the occupation and neutralization of North Korea. Thus, even reduced exercises have an aggressive subtext. To reiterate, I agree that joint exercises enhance readiness and forgoing them comes at a cost. However, they are also highly destabilizing and provocative because they are expensive and elaborate dress rehearsals for war. If a temporary reduction in exercises helps give diplomacy a chance, it is worthwhile to do so.

South Korea recently agreed to the U.S. request to expand the mission of its antipiracy unit Cheonghae to the Strait of Hormuz. What significance does this have for South Korea’s role in countering transnational maritime threats?

The Cheonghae unit has a formidable record of preventing piracy and protecting shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden. This demonstrates the importance of flexible naval units in extending South Korea’s strategic reach. South Korea has strategic relationships with many Gulf states, especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, deployment of the Cheonghae unit also reflects several tensions.

One major source of tension is the changing nature of the U.S.-ROK alliance. We have witnessed outrageous demands to increase the burden sharing on the South Korean side to $5 billion as well as a shift in U.S. expectations of South Korea playing a larger role in the Indo-Pacific. This ultimately creates two dilemmas for the ROK. The first is strategic—at what point will the benefits of the alliance be outweighed by involvement in actual or potential foreign conflicts? Currently, South Korea gets a lot out of the alliance, such as nuclear deterrence and the preservation of its sovereignty. But as the United States pushes South Korea to take a more proactive role in the Indo-Pacific, South Korea risks becoming entangled in conflicts outside its core interests. In the long term, South Korea’s growing blue water capabilities will create bigger questions about when they should be used.

A second source of tension is operational. South Korea’s shift to a blue water navy—although it supports U.S. ambitions—may put pressure on the brown water mission of dealing with North Korea. Although the North Korean navy is not capable of mounting a sustained offensive threat, the mission of the ROK Navy in an inter-Korean conflict would be to conduct offensive operations in North Korean waters. North Korea may create overlapping anti-access and area-denial defenses to preserve its strategic assets, such as ballistic missile submarines. Hunting down these assets would be dangerous and complicated in coastal waters, and it is not yet clear that the ROK Navy has the capability to carry out these brown water missions.

With the world currently overwhelmed by the Covid-19 pandemic, what are the prospects for inter-Korean diplomacy in 2020? Do you see continued diplomatic engagement as viable?

Diplomatic engagement requires a key shift in attitudes and perceptions on the U.S. side. This is best exemplified by the United States’ persistent securitization of any North Korean military activity while celebrating our own defensive measures, such as the delivery of F-35 stealth fighters. For example, recent tests of the North Korean KN-24/5 system captured headlines as if these were tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles. However, these tactical systems are roughly equivalent to the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System, while South Korea’s Hyunmoo-2B missile has a range of 500 km. The asymmetry in the way we look at this issue is one factor preventing sustained reasonable dialogue.

I am a firm believer in tit-for-tat strategies, but one needs to be realistic about existing gradients of power and insecurity for these strategies to work. The United States and South Korea have been making the North Korean regime politically, economically, and militarily insecure for a long time. South Korea spent $43 billion on its military in 2018, which is greater than the entire GDP of North Korea, according to many estimates. Only when we recognize this sharp imbalance of power can we actually start to negotiate in a way that makes meaningful concessions.

In my opinion, U.S. diplomacy toward North Korea has been basically a diplomacy of submission. Any other position is often criticized as appeasement. The real problem is a lack of clarity on the real objective of diplomacy. If the goal is regime change, then there is no basis for negotiation, and the forecast for security in the region is bleak. However, if the goal is normalization of relations, then there is hope. South Korea, especially under President Moon Jae-in, has been showing more of this shift in attitude than the United States. There needs to be a frank domestic conversation about what the United States honestly wants from North Korea in the short term and long term if we want to pursue a negotiated solution to this crisis.

Daniel Phillip Connolly is an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

This interview was conducted by Sanghoon Kim, a Korea Foundation Research Fellow with the Political and Security Affairs group at NBR.