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S. Korea to fully suspend inter-Korean military pact after NK balloon barrage

Unification Ministry says it stands firm on 'freedom of expression' to float anti-NK leaflets over border

June 3, 2024 - 15:39 By Ji Da-gyum
South Korean military personnel inspect remnants of a trash-filled balloon floated over from North Korea to Incheon. Using mine detectors, they check the safety of the balloon's contents, Sunday. (Yonhap)

The South Korean presidential office on Monday decided to propose completely suspending the September 19 Inter-Korean Military Agreement at Tuesday's Cabinet meeting, following North Korea floating around 1,000 trash-filled balloons toward South Korea.

The National Security Office made this decision after Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo convened a meeting at 11 a.m. Monday to discuss follow-up measures to decisions made at the emergency meeting of the National Security Council the previous day.

"The participants of the meeting evaluated that the September 19 Military Agreement, effectively nullified by North Korea's de facto declaration of its abrogation, has caused many problems in our military's readiness posture amid the recent series of provocations by North Korea, resulting in tangible harm and threats to our citizens," the presidential National Security Office said in a statement.

"Accordingly, the meeting participants have decided to propose putting on the agenda suspending the effectiveness of the entire September 19 Military Agreement until mutual trust is restored between South and North Korea, for the Cabinet meeting on June 4 (Tuesday)," it added.

The office said that suspending the agreement would allow military exercises along the Military Demarcation Line, lifting the restrictions imposed by the pact. The suspension would also enable the military to take "fuller and more immediate countermeasures against North Korean provocations."

National Security Adviser Chang Ho-jin said Sunday that the country will take "unendurable measures" against North Korea's trash-filled balloons and GPS interference near the inter-Korean border after the emergency meeting.

A senior presidential official, speaking on condition of anonymity, elaborated that Seoul would "not rule out the resumption of loudspeaker broadcasts aimed at North Korea" along the inter-Korean border, which would necessitate the suspension of the Sept. 19 agreement by Seoul.

In November last year, North Korea unilaterally announced the effective nullification of the September 19 Inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement, which was signed to "completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain" during the inter-Korean summit in 2018.

Pyongyang's announcement came in response to Seoul's partial suspension of the agreement, aimed at resuming reconnaissance near the border and enhancing its readiness posture. South Korea made this decision shortly after North Korea launched its first-ever military spy satellite.

Koo Byung-sam, spokesman for South Korea's Ministry of Unification, speaks during a regular press briefing at the government complex in Seoul, Monday. (Yonhap)

South Korea has identified around 1,000 balloons filled with trash sent by North Korea toward South Korea within less than a week, from May 28 to Sunday, marking the first time such a large number of balloons have been floated over in such a short period of time from North Korea to the South.

The number of balloons identified from North Korea this time is nearly equivalent to the annual total of approximately 1,000 balloons carrying trash, anti-South Korea leaflets and CDs it floated over from 2016 to 2017.

The trash-filled balloons have caused some material damage. For example, balloons carrying trash shattered the windshield of a vehicle parked outside of a villa in Ansan, located around 28 kilometers south of Seoul, on Sunday. Incheon International Airport officials stated that balloons fell on the runway multiple times over the weekend, causing disruptions at South Korea's main gateway.

North Korea also attempted to jam GPS signals near the West Sea border for five consecutive days through Sunday, resulting in disruptions to ferries and fishing vessels.

South Korea's Unification Ministry on Monday reaffirmed its stance against urging restraint on civilian groups sending anti-North Korean leaflets across the inter-Korean border, citing the principle of "freedom of expression," despite North Korea's warning to take tit-for-tat action against such dissemination.

"We are approaching the issue of distributing leaflets and others in consideration of the Constitutional Court's decision to uphold freedom of expression," Unification Ministry spokesperson Koo Byung-sam said during a regular briefing when asked about the ministry's intentions regarding calls for restraint among civic groups.

In 2020, the Moon Jae-in government revised the "Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act" to ban sending propaganda leaflets to North Korea, following the 2018 agreement to cease all hostile acts along the MDL. However, in September 2023, South Korea's Constitutional Court struck down the law, ruling it "excessively restrictive of freedom of expression."

North Korean Vice Defense Minister Kim Kang-il, in a Korean press statement issued Sunday night, announced that the country would "temporarily suspend the action of scattering waste paper across the border," characterizing North Korea's actions as "thoroughly retaliatory measures."

Kim, however, warned that if South Korea resumes the scattering of anti-North Korea leaflets, North Korea will "respond by intensively scattering wastepaper and rubbish a hundred times the amount of leaflets and the number of incidents."

North Korean defector and balloon-launching activist Park Sang-hak on Monday rejected North Korea's assertion that its garbage scattering was in retaliation, clarifying he has never floated garbage over into North Korea.

Park disclosed that on May 11, from Ganghwa Island in Incheon, he dispatched around 300,000 leaflets denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's characterization of South Korea as an "invariable principal enemy," along with 2,000 USBs containing K-pop and drama files, using 20 balloons.

"We sternly warn Kim Jong-un to apologize immediately to the people of South Korea for the atrocities committed," Park said in a statement issued in his capacity as head of Fighters for a Free North Korea. "Failure to do so will result in retaliation against your misdeeds a thousandfold, 10 thousandfold."