July 24, 2024

Seoul, South Korea — South Korea on Tuesday took steps to suspend a contentious military agreement with North Korea and resume front-line military activities, as tension between the rivals rises over the North’s recent launch of trash-carrying balloons. North Korea didn’t immediately respond, but South Korea’s resumption of firing exercises or propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts will likely prompt North Korea to take similar or stronger steps along the rivals’ heavily militarized border.

In the past week, North Korea has used balloons to drop manure, cigarette butts, scraps of cloth and waste paper on South Korea, prompting Seoul to vow “unbearable” retaliation. Asked about it Monday during a regular news briefing in Washington, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller called it “quite disgusting tactic.” 

North Korea said it would halt its balloon campaign on Sunday.

South Korean soldiers examine various objects including what appeared to be trash from a balloon believed to have been sent by North Korea, in Incheon
South Korean soldiers examine various objects including what appeared to be trash from a balloon believed to have been sent by North Korea, in Incheon, South Korea, June 2, 2024.


On Tuesday, South Korea’s Cabinet Council and President Yoon Suk Yeol approved a proposal to suspend the 2018 inter-Korean agreement on lowering front-line military tension. It will take effect once Seoul formally notifies the North.

Cho Chang-rae, South Korea’s deputy defense minister for policy, told reporters that South Korea will use all available measures to protect the public from North Korean provocations.

“The responsibility for this situation lies solely with North Korea. If North Korea launches additional provocations, our military, in conjunction with the solid the South Korea-U.S. defense posture, will punish North Korea swiftly, strongly and to the end,” Cho said.

South Korea Koreas Tensions
A North Korean military guard post, top, and South Korean post, bottom, are seen from Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, May 31, 2024.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

The military agreement — reached during a short-lived era of reconciliation between the Koreas — required the two countries to cease all hostile acts at border areas, such as live firing drills, aerial drills and psychological warfare.

During the cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, South Korea’s No. 2 official, said the 2018 deal has weakened South Korean military readiness at a time when the North’s provocations pose real threats to the public. Han cited North Korea’s balloon campaign, tests of nuclear-capable weapons targeting South Korea, and alleged jamming of GPS navigation signals in the South.

South Korean officials said the suspension of the 2018 deal would allow it to stage front-line military drills but didn’t publicly elaborate on other steps. Observers say South Korea was considering restarting front-line propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts, a Cold War-style psychological campaign that experts say has stung in rigidly controlled North Korea, whose 26 million people are mostly not allowed access to foreign news.

The 2018 deal was already in limbo after the two Koreas took some steps in breach of it amid tensions over North Korea’s spy satellite launch last November.


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