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North Korea moves troops and heavy weapons to South Korea border after breakdown of military pact

This undated handout photo released on November 27, 2023 by the South Korean Defence Ministry shows North Korean soldiers near a guard post on the North side of the Demilitarised zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas (South Korean Defence Ministry/AF)
This undated handout photo released on November 27, 2023 by the South Korean Defence Ministry shows North Korean soldiers near a guard post on the North side of the Demilitarised zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas (South Korean Defence Ministry/AF)

North Korea is rushing soldiers and weaponry to its border with South Korea, reopening sensitive guard posts after the breakdown of the historic 2018 deal to avoid military conflict between the two countries.

North Korea has deployed heavy weapons and erected guard posts along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) border that were demolished under the peace agreement five years ago, the South Korean defence ministry said on Monday.

The deal came in a year of thawing inter-Korean tensions, beginning with talks between US president Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and ending in a September 2018 joint agreement at a celebratory meeting between Mr Kim and then-South Korean leader Moon Jae-in.

But progress in denuclearisation talks later stalled, and tensions are now significantly ratcheting up again between the two Koreas after Pyongyang said it had successfully placed a spy satellite into orbit, its latest show of defiance against UN-led sanctions.

In a retaliatory move, South Korea partially suspended the 2018 agreement and resumed surveillance flights along the border.

North Korea responded by fully withdrawing from the pact and vowing to make South Korea “pay dearly” for nullifying parts of the pact, according to state media KCNA.

On Monday, South Korea’s defence ministry released pictures taken since Friday showing North Korean soldiers installing temporary guard posts in several locations.

They were also pictured setting up what appeared to be a recoilless rifle – a portable anti-vehicle weapon or light artillery piece – at a fortification, it said.

South Korean Defence Ministry shows North Korean soldiers rebuilding a guard post on the North side of the Demilitarised zone (DMZ) dividing the two Korea (South Korean Defence Ministry/AF)
South Korean Defence Ministry shows North Korean soldiers rebuilding a guard post on the North side of the Demilitarised zone (DMZ) dividing the two Korea (South Korean Defence Ministry/AF)

A senior military official said that before the guard posts were destroyed under the deal there were observation posts and North Korea is now “presumed to be rebuilding them”, according to Yonhap, a South Korean news agency.

"There are only a few guard posts currently undergoing restoration work, but the North is expected to restore all of them as they are essential facilities for surveillance," the official added.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the military will take "corresponding measures" in response to the North’s move.

"It depends on the enemy’s behavior. It is North Korea that has taken actions and broken trust ... We will take corresponding measures. Not taking an action would be more foolish," said general Kim Myung-soo, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who took office on Saturday.

According to South Korea’s estimates, before the 2018 agreement North Korea had about 160 guard posts along the DMZ, while the South had 60.

Each side demolished 11 of them following the military deal.

A North Korea guard post picture by South Korea military along the DMZ (South Korean Defence Ministry/AF)
A North Korea guard post picture by South Korea military along the DMZ (South Korean Defence Ministry/AF)

The defence pact – known as the Inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement – was aimed at de-escalating tensions at the border and preventing accidental clashes. It created a 5km buffer zone, including a no-fly zone, to reduce the possibility of an armed conflict.

Following the launch of the spy satellite last Tuesday (21 November), North Korean state media claimed Kim Jong-un was able to review photos of US military bases in Hawaii and Seoul.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and his daughter meeting with scientists who contributed to the launch of a reconnaissance satellite (KCNA VIA KNS/AFP via Getty Image)
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and his daughter meeting with scientists who contributed to the launch of a reconnaissance satellite (KCNA VIA KNS/AFP via Getty Image)

On 22 November, nine members of the UN Security Council joined the US in a statement that denounced North Korea’s satellite launch for using ballistic missile technology, calling it a violation of multiple Security Council resolutions.

The United States called an unscheduled meeting of the UNSC for Monday to discuss the developments in North Korea.

Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of South Korea, Japan and China met on Sunday in the South Korean port city of Busan to discuss when to resume their leaders’ trilateral summits after a four-year hiatus.

A meeting between the leaders of the three countries is expected to take place sometime next year, according to South Korea’s national security adviser Cho Tae-yong.

Heightening tensions due to North Korea’s weapons programme were one of the agenda items of the meeting.

Additional reporting by agencies