South Korean soldiers stand guard as their comrades conduct landmine clearing operations inside of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas in Cheorwon, south of the DMZ. The two Koreas on October 1 started to remove landmines along a section of their heavily fortified border as part of a summit deal to ease military tensions, Seoul said. Photo: AFP/Song Kyong-Seok
South Korean soldiers stand guard as their comrades conduct landmine clearing operations inside of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas in Cheorwon, south of the DMZ. The two Koreas on October 1 started to remove landmines along a section of their heavily fortified border as part of a summit deal to ease military tensions, Seoul said. Photo: AFP/Song Kyong-Seok

A brouhaha is brewing in Seoul, as both Washington and retired local generals express indignation about military agreements struck between North and South Korea at last month’s summit in Pyongyang.

In transpires that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha and – in a controversy that is getting maximum airplay in local media – may have used expletives when he learned the contents of the deal.

That follows the undiplomatic language US President Donald Trump employed on Wednesday when he slapped down Kang after she floated trial balloons regarding the easing of sanctions on North Korea.

Meanwhile, as North and South Korea proceed with measures to ease tensions along their land and sea borders, questions are being asked locally if South Korea is lowering its defenses too quickly.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff on Friday indicated that Seoul may be de-accelerating the purchase and deployment  of capabilities formerly considered critical to national defense.

And retired senior officers are deeply concerned: A former vice-chairman of Seoul’s Joint Chiefs  has launched a petition on the presidential website demanding a public inquiry into defense matters.

Cross-Pacific crosswinds

The developments come at a delicate time in cross-Pacific relations. While Pyongyang-Seoul ties are surging on a range of fronts, Pyongyang-Washington relations are, despite the high hopes sparked by the June Singapore summit, stuck in a rut: There is still no agreement between the two parties on how to proceed with the “total  denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” that both signed up to.

As a result, policy gaps may be opening between Seoul and Washington.

Japanese media reported that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had angrily called his Seoul opposite number Kang Kyung-wha – and possibly even sworn at her – when he learned details of military cooperation measures agreed between the two Koreas.

Kang was asked about the alleged incident during a parliamentary audit on October 10. According to local media, Kang admitted that Pompeo,… had a number of questions since he hadn’t been adequately briefed,” adding that she “wouldn’t define it as strong language.”

Kang subsequently stated that there had been “adequate consultation,” between the allies over the issue.

Conservative media at odds with the Moon Jae-in administration have had a field day. A diplomatic source told leading right-wing daily The Chosun Ilbo: “Pompeo was informed of the terms to be agreed on during the inter-Korean summit and became very angry that he was not consulted in advance on issues that could have a major impact on the US.” The source added Pompeo “used strong language.”

Scale-back of critical assets?

A further issue arose on Friday when the National Assembly audited the Defense Ministry.

“In line with the changes in the security environment and with progress in North Korea’s denuclearization, we will flexibly review the deployment of US strategic assets and the three-axis system,” the JCS said during the audit, according to Yonhap news agency.

In a 21st century version of gunboat diplomacy, US strategic assets – including nuclear submarines, stealth bombers, aircraft carriers and even SEAL Team 6, the commando unit that assassinated terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden – have customarily been deployed in shows of force on or near the Korean peninsula during times of tension.

The “three-axis system” is a program designed by conventionally armed South Korea to deter nuclear-armed North Korea. It consists of: “Massive Punishment and Retaliation,” a combination of special operations direct action units and missiles designed to take out North Korea’s leadership; the “Kill Chain” pre-emptive strike platform, which combines reconnaissance assets, including satellites, in combination with deep-penetration missiles, designed to incapacitate North Korean weapons; and the “Korean Air and Missile Defense System,” designed to protect the South with radars and anti-missile units.

With many assets central to the above programs still not purchased, the JCS statement signals a possible slowdown in the eventual deployment, or even of the “three-axis system.”

The JCS also said it had found the Israeli-build Iron Dome defense system unsuitable to counter threats in the Korean operational environment.

Tension reduction underway

Pompeo’s alleged fury with Kang was aimed at military agreements signed during last month’s inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang.

Some of these are largely confidence-building measures with minimal impact on readiness.

The public has been transfixed by reports and photos of the demining operations being conducted along the world’s most heavily mined frontier, the DMZ, since  October 1, which will enable the joint excavation of war remains.

Defense specialists are largely unconcerned: Contrary to popular belief, minefields slow and get worn away, but do not destroy assaulting units. Moreover, they are now only being removed from two areas of the DMZ, which would “canalize” any attacking force.

Other elements of the agreements are largely symbolic. The demilitarization of the iconic truce village of Panmunjom is of little significance, given that troops there are armed only with pistols.

The removal of guard posts inside the DMZ is also of limited consequence: foot patrols will still be able to monitor the terrain and give early warning of enemy movement.

Experts are more concerned about other elements of the agreements, which are designed to prevent accidental clashes. These elements include the creation of buffer zones along the inter-Korean frontier and the establishment of no-fly zones over it.

Attacking defense policies

Shin Won-shik, a former vice-chairman of Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, has placed a petition on the website of the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential mansion, demanding a public enquiry.

“We gave up our national security at the cost of denuclearization and did not even achieve any substantial progress on denuclearization,” Shin told foreign reporters last month. “North Korea still has conventional weapons that are a threat to us. Defense is way more valuable than denuclearization, so this latest agreement is the worst!”

Shin discussed the military balance on the peninsula, where the South’s technology-centric 620,000-strong armed forces face off against the North’s manpower/firepower-centric 1.1 million-strong Korean Peoples’  Army.

“They have pure quantity: 2-3 times more than the South Korean army,” Shin said. “Our qualitative superiority achieved balance.”

Now that is endangered. Two areas where South Korea held a qualitative advantage were intelligence and precision strikes, he said. However, the critical Southern advantage is in image intelligence, much of it derived from aircraft or drones; North Korea is ahead of the South in signals intelligence, media intelligence and human intelligence.

With no-fly zones set to be established over the DMZ and disputed waters on both sides of the peninsula – 20 miles off the west coast, 40 miles off the east coast – as of November 1, Seoul and its US ally have lost their advantage in aerial reconnaissance and related intelligence gathering that provides data for precision weapons use.

“Now, we cannot monitor those areas, because of the no-fly zone,” Shin said. “I believe that South Korea has lost whatever advantage we had.  We have tied our own hands.”

This issue, together with the demilitarization of the flashpoint Yellow Sea border area, is particularly problematic for South Korea. Seoul and its port, Inchon, are geographically proximate to both the west coast and the DMZ. That is not the case for Pyongyang.

Shin also criticized moves to scale back exercises and alleged that the creation of a joint military committee with North Korea could result in the Northern side gaining veto power over the South’s acquisition of defense equipment.

All this raises fears the likelihood that Trumpian Washington – which seeks to reduce defense costs in South Korea and other overseas deployment zones – will be forced to shoulder a greater share of South Korea’s defense. “The latest agreement limits South Korea’s role so the US has to bear a bigger burden,” Shin said. “If they refuse to do so, that puts the alliance at risk.”

There is already disagreement between Seoul and Washington over the DMZ moves, with the US asserting last month that it is in control. General Robert Abrams, the incoming commander of US Forces Korea, or USFK, told the US Senate’s Committee on Armed Services that DMZ activities fall under the jurisdiction of the UN Command – which the USFK commander heads.

Even so, the South Koreans appear satisfied by last month’s feel-good inter-Korean summit, and unperturbed by defense issues.

Shin’s petition requires 200,000 signatures by October 27 to be reviewed by the Blue House. As of late Friday afternoon, it had collected only 25,453.

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