Withdrawing from the Armistice--Again



A central problem in dealing with North Korea is the low signal-to-noise ratio in Pyongyang’s policy pronouncements, a point made tellingly in an interesting academic piece by Vito D'Orazio we discussed around the time of the joint military exercises last year.  (For those with journal access, the piece was subsequently published in the Journal of East Asian Studies). Using weekly data generated from a large machine-generated dataset of press sources, D’Orazio asks whether the presence of the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises and their predecessors actually changed the rhetoric or conflict behavior of the North Koreans. The answer was “no”: because North Korea is so routinely belligerent, it was impossible to detect a statistically significant effect of the exercises.

This finding is germane to the recent statement by a spokesman of the Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army (KPA) that North Korea will no longer be bound by the terms of the armistice. US and South Korean actions, starting with the UNSC sanctions following the satellite launch and including the current exercises, are portrayed as hostile acts. In response, the KPA threatened:

  • “Second and third strong practical counteractions in succession to cope with the high-handed war acts of the U.S. and all other hostile forces...” The nuclear test is portrayed as the first “counteraction” to the UNSC sanctions; presumably more fireworks are in the offing, probably intermediate-range missile tests off the east coast.
  • From March 11—ironically, the date that the computer simulation exercises of Key Resolve begin—“the KPA Supreme Command will make the Korean Armistice Agreement totally nullified.”
  • Finally, the KPA Supreme Command will halt the activities of the Panmunjom mission of the KPA, including cutting the DPRK-US military hotline.

There is only one problem: North Korea has made and presumably carried out most of these threats already; a 2009 piece by Yonhap and an invaluable 1995 guide by Larry Nicksch (on the Nautilus website) tell the story, supplemented here by our own research.

  • The first North Korean challenges to the armistice started in 1991, when the UN Command for the first time appointed a South Korean general to represent it in the Military Armistice Commission (MAC); the MAC was the body tasked with investigating and resolving violations of the Armistice Agreement. North Korea claimed that South Korea was not a party to the armistice and stopped attending meetings of the full MAC, although they continued participation in lower-level working meetings.
  • In April 1994, North Korea's Foreign Ministry described the Armistice Agreement as "blank sheets of paper," demanding the United States negotiate a peace agreement. In May 1994, North Korea threatened that it would no longer be bound by the armistice if the US went ahead with a multinational naval exercise; the exercise went ahead. North Korea then formally pulled out of the MAC altogether, establishing a Panmunjom Mission of the Korean People's Army in its stead. Later in the year, the Chinese also withdrew from the MAC.
  • On April 4, 1996 the North's Panmunjom Mission said the country was abandoning its obligations to the armistice, including maintaining and supervising the military demarcation line and the demilitarized zone. According to South Korean intelligence sources, the North Koreans launched no fewer than eight military probes into the DMZ over the following two years, several involving armed clashes.
  • In 2003, the Panmunjom mission twice threatened to not abide by the terms of the armistice, the first in February in response to the annual joint exercises and then again in July following announcements of US weapons purchases for the forces stationed in the South.
  • In advance of the annual Ulji Focus Lens exercises in August 2006, the Panmunjom Mission issued yet another statement that the drill was tantamount to an act of war and the country would no longer abide by the armistice.
  • Most recently, in May 2009 the Panmunjom spokesman again reiterated that the KPA would not be bound by the armistice following Korean participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative; as a result, “the Korean Peninsula is bound to immediately return to a state of war from a legal point of view and so our revolutionary armed forces will go over to corresponding military actions.” In retrospect, a more chilling feature of the announcement was that the DPRK “will not guarantee the legal status of the five islands” in the West Sea nor the safety of US and South Korean naval and civilian vessels operating in the waters “around” the Northern Limit Line. The sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of one of the islands--Yeonpyeong-do--followed in 2010.

The armistice was an agreement among three militaries, not the states; it is not a peace treaty. Armistices hold for two reasons. In the first instance, they reflect the underlying balance of power at the time they are signed; they work when neither side has the incentive or capacity to challenge the status quo. To the extent "the armistice" has worked, it is because of the deterrent capabilities of both sides. Second, armistices also have an institutional face; they constrain through rules that make it harder to resume fighting. In Korea, this aspect of teh alliance included the DMZ itself, the MAC, and a very minimal set of confidence-building measures such as the military hotline.

What does it mean to no longer be bound by the terms of the armistice? It could mean that the North Koreans are abandoning restraint because they believe that they are able to strike with impunity. Nuclear weapons could play a role in this calculus, which could be a tragic miscalculation. It could also mean that the North no longer supports the integrity of the armistice institutions. That idea seems a bit of a stretch, though; North Korea has been chipping away at the armistice institutions, like the MAC, for nearly two decades. There is not much left.

Or following D’Orazia it could be just noise and signify nothing. Not knowing what the North Koreans really think is a central source of the current instability on the peninsula at the moment.

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