Next USFK Chief Casts Doubt on Inter-Korean Military Deal

  • By Jeong Woo-sang, Cho Yi-jun, Yu Yong-weon

    September 27, 2018 09:29

    The next commander of the U.S. Forces Korea on Tuesday cast doubt on an inter-Korean military deal that would result in the withdrawal of soldiers from the demilitarized zone.

    Gen. Robert Abrams told the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services that all activities in the DMZ are under the jurisdiction of the UN Command, which the USFK commander also heads.

    President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last week agreed to withdraw 11 guard posts each from the DMZ by year's end and disarm the Joint Security Area in the border truce village of Panmunjom.

    But it seems consultation with the U.S. has not gone smoothly. Abrams said military talks can go on between the two Koreas, but the process should be "brokered, adjudicated, observed and enforced" by the UN Command.

    Last week, a Defense Ministry source said, “We negotiated the matters 52 times through three different channels. But Pentagon spokesman Christopher Logan said on Sep. 19 that the U.S. Defense Department will "thoroughly review" the military pact.

    Moon told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that "it's up to the two Koreas to reduce military tensions caused by conventional weapons," though the denuclearization process should depend on steps to be taken by the North and the U.S.

    "A basic step was taken by the two Koreas in the joint declaration in Pyongyang to reduce military tensions," Moon added. "If the declaration is implemented properly, it'll be possible to take a next step to reduce North Korea's long-range artillery pieces... and more threatening weapons later."

    Robert Abrams (left) testifies during his nomination hearing as commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. /AFP-Yonhap

    Some of the steps in the cross-border agreement could require UNC approval, such as joint use of the lower tributary of the Han River and joint excavation of the remains of soldiers who died during the Korean War inside the buffer zone, but not a 20-40 km no-fly zone near the DMZ, because the UNC has jurisdiction only inside the DMZ.

    Military source said the UNC is very prickly about any incursions into its jurisdiction. For instance, one South Korean government official was unable to travel to North Korea last month to inspect North Korean railways because the UN Command prohibited him from crossing the military demarcation line.

    But considering the atmosphere within the Trump administration, which is in favor of engagement with North Korea, the UNC could be instructed to give the South some leeway. A UNC source said, "The U.S. military will find it difficult to oppose the policies of the U.S. president. If U.S.-North Korea talks progress smoothly and progress is made in denuclearization, there is a strong chance of authorization" for the inter-Korean military deal.

    A Defense Ministry official here insisted there is no discord. "The ministry has held close negotiations with the UN Command about the deal, including the mutual dismantlement of guard posts on a trial basis," the official said. "The current head of the UN Command," Gen. Vincent Brooks, "also expressed support for the deal."

    Meanwhile, Abrams told senators that any inter-Korean peace treaty would be a direct agreement between the two sides and not invalidate the armistice approved by the UN Security Council.

    Abrams also predicted that massive joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises will be staged next spring as scheduled. He said the suspension of the exercises has caused "degradation" to military readiness on the Korean Peninsula. This also contradicts his predecessor, who earlier said there was no weakening of preparedness since smaller-scale exercises are continuing.

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