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The No-Fly Zone and Its Effects on Surveillance

On September 19, 2018, North and South Korea adopted the ‘Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain,’ as a subsidiary agreement of the Pyongyang Joint Declaration. Unlike the previous agreement on military relations between the North and South, this agreement contains practical measures to prevent military hostilities on both sides. Specifically, both North and South Korea are prohibited from conducting on the ground artillery shooting training within 5km of the DMZ, in addition to outdoor, regimental maneuvering training. Artillery and maritime maneuvering drills were suspended in the countries’ coastline, and the gun barrel cover of coastal guns were to be installed and closed. Meanwhile, no-fly zones were also established along the DMZ to ban any military related flight activities.

As stated in the Pyongyang Joint Declaration, the military agreement is a result of practical measures taken to ‘end military hostilities in confrontational areas and eliminate practical war risks across the Korean Peninsula.’ However, contrary to the government’s intentions, South Korea faced major criticism after the adoption of the military agreement. The level of criticism has not subsided, as shown by the conservative media’s continued critique. The Liberty Korea Party even designated the adoption of the agreement as ‘military disarmament’ by the ROK military and is claiming to reveal the true nature of the agreement by launching an investigation for the ‘verification of the inter-Korean military alliance.’ In short, some argue that ‘the military agreement between the two Koreas is not a guarantee of peace on the Korean peninsula, but evil itself.’ Critics, in particular, have stated that the establishment of a no-fly zone as part of the suspension of hostilities in the air undermines North Korea’s ability to capture provocations, not only worsening the deterrent power of our military to North Korea, but also ultimately fostering military instability and mutual distrust between the two Koreas.

At first glance, this makes sense. The Cold War arms control agreements (ABM, SALT, START, INF) between the US and the Soviet Union were successful because they tolerated mutual surveillance. The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which was an arms control negotiation in the early post-Cold War era, also achieved the goal of strengthening stability and security in Europe by establishing an “effective and strict verification regime” as mutual conditions. These agreements and negotiations, whether in the US, the Soviet Union or Europe, aimed at eliminating imbalances that hindered national or regional stability and security, as well as the ability to launch surprise nuclear attacks. In their negotiations, the verification regime became the key premise in achieving the aforementioned goals. What about the South Korea–North Korea military agreement? Did the establishment of a no-fly zone produce a surveillance gap and weaken the ability to maintain surveillance, as critics have argued? This is not the case. The arguments of critics come from a misunderstanding of the various reconnaissance assets operating in the Korean peninsula.

Based on the scope of monitoring, the reconnaissance assets operating in the Korean Peninsula are classified into the national level and strategy-based level. National level assets are reconnaissance assets deployed from military satellites, the Global Hawk, U-2, and USFK bases that can monitor the entire Korean Peninsula. Strategy-based level assets are smaller than those of the national level, but are capable of gathering information needed to achieve strategic goals within the global and operational zones. In addition, when monitoring North Korea, reconnaissance assets are also classified according to altitude. The strategic level is in high altitude (military satellites, U-2, Global Hawk), the operational level in medium altitude (RF-16, RC-800), and the tactical level in low altitude (drones). Although the establishment of a no-fly zone has induced some limitations on target acquisition for tactical assets operated at low altitudes, such limitations can be supplemented by other assets.

The South Korean military is also expected to complete the qualification of the Global Hawk by 2019, an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft capable of collecting 36 hours of North Korean information at high altitudes, and plans to introduce mid-range unmanned reconnaissance aircrafts by 2020. It seems like the South Korea’s dependence on US military intelligence is decreasing. In conjunction with the introduction of high altitude drones, a multi-source information convergence system is expected to be completed by 2021; this system would be able to integrate, converge and distribute information collected from various information assets (such as enemy targets and enemy troop movements) in real time. Starting from 2021, real time information sharing from strategic and tactical altars will be enabled, allowing for more independent and efficient operations.

As mentioned above, it is not consistent with the truth to claim that the establishment of a no-fly zone creates a significant gap in South Korea’s surveillance system. The ROK military is effectively conducting 24-hour surveillance and reconnaissance missions regardless of the no-fly zone; furthermore, it is striving to develop future intelligence capability as well. Nevertheless, critics continue to “oppose for the sake of opposing” without even a basic understanding of the operations of reconnaissance assets in the Korean peninsula. In terms of the no-fly zone, South Korea has conceded in many cases due to its absolute advantage in the air force. However, such concessions were intended for 'peace' based on mutuality, rather than 'disarmament' based on unilaterality. Sound criticism is the foundation for efficient policy-making. However, it must be emphasized that criticism without a logical basis instead undermines social integration and intensifies conflict.

***The views herein do not necessarily reflect the views of North Korean Review or YINKS.

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