The Korean Peninsula, a region long fraught with geopolitical tensions, is experiencing a significant escalation in military conflict, marked by a complex interplay of strategic maneuvers and technological advancements. One of the key factors of this escalation is the suspension of the September 19 Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain (also referred to as the Comprehensive Military Agreement or CMA), a pivotal accord designed to mitigate military hostilities between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea). Its suspension has not only symbolized a breakdown in diplomatic efforts, but also catalyzed an arms race, extending the conflict beyond traditional boundaries to include the realms of air and space.
The trajectory of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, particularly from 2023 through early 2024, has witnessed an unprecedented arms race characterized by intense competition for surveillance supremacy, with the proliferation of drones and spy satellites playing a pivotal role. It underscores the urgent necessity for nuanced policy interventions regarding surveillance technologies to stave off a catastrophic plunge into military conflict.
Suspension of the Comprehensive Military Agreement and Escalating Tensions
The CMA, once seen as a cornerstone in preventing military conflicts on the Korean Peninsula, has now crumbled. South Korea’s accusations that North Korea’s satellite launches violate the agreement have ignited a complex political and military dilemma. Ironically, some South Korean defense officials argued that the no-fly zones, initially conceived as measures to maintain peace, have instead hindered South Korea’s aerial reconnaissance capabilities, thereby exposing vulnerabilities in its national security. Following North Korea’s satellite launch late last year, this viewpoint has gained traction among military strategists and political leaders within the Yoon Suk-yeol government, led by Defense Minister Shin Won-sik, who advocate for suspending these zones to regain crucial surveillance capabilities.
However, Minister Shin’s assertion, framing South Korea’s partial suspension of the 2018 agreement (specifically the third clause of Article 1) as a “proportional response” to North Korean satellite launches—seen as violations of the Inter-Korean agreement and United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions—has triggered a strong reaction from Pyongyang, resulting in a declaration of non-compliance with the agreement. North Korea’s assertive stance is not merely reactive but emblematic of a larger, anticipatory strategy of Seoul’s eventual withdrawal from the agreement following the partial suspension. This proactive stance by Pyongyang has effectively rendered the agreement null and has set the stage for increased military tensions across the peninsula.
As a consequence, these developments have significantly heightened the risk of inadvertent clashes, especially since the buffer zones on land, sea and air initially established by the 2018 inter-Korean military agreement to prohibit hostile actions have become obsolete. North Korea has repositioned its guard posts and deployed heavy weaponry along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), while the South Korean military has rearmed security guards in the Joint Security Area (JSA) and made preparations to restore some destroyed guard posts. Furthermore, North Korea conducted live-fire artillery drills off its west coast in early January 2024—the first such exercises near the sea border since December 2022. In response, South Korea fired 400 artillery shells into waters south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) after North Korea fired some 200 artillery shells earlier in the day.
Given the volatile situation, it is likely that in the coming months, there could be additional regiment-level field maneuvers along the DMZ and artillery drills on the NLL due to the disappearance of land and maritime buffer zones. The cancelation of no-fly zones near the border could also lead to accidental aircraft clashes, airspace intrusions and air interceptions.
Aerial Surveillance Race
The trajectory of tensions on the Korean Peninsula has irrevocably veered toward a sophisticated arms race from late 2022 through 2023, encompassing not only land and sea, but also the final frontier—air and space. This new battleground is marked by an intense competition for surveillance supremacy, characterized by the proliferation of aerial surveillance weaponry such as drones and spy satellites. This reflects a broader global trend toward integrating unmanned systems into military doctrines. The Ukraine war has seen drones and unmanned weapons becoming crucial elements in deployed warfare tactics. North Korea’s deployment of drones, including a notable breach of a no-fly zone near Seoul’s presidential office in December 2022, has rung alarm bells regarding the audacity and sophistication of Pyongyang’s military tactics. Moreover, Pyongyang unveiled its surveillance and attack drones during an arms exhibition and a military parade in July 2023, vowing to manufacture new drones during the year-end party meeting.
In response, South Korea has made concerted efforts to bolster its own drone capabilities. On September 1, 2023, the South Korean military established the Drone Operations Command to conduct surveillance, reconnaissance and strike operations. As a long-term approach, the South Korean government announced its Defense Innovation 4.0 (DI 4.0) plan in March 2023, aimed at enabling the ROK military to counter North Korea’s asymmetric nuclear and missile threats. Specifically, “Kill Web,” a fundamental component of DI 4.0, will utilize cyber/artificial intelligence (AI) operations, electronic warfare techniques and unmanned assets, including stealth and killer drones, to prevent North Korea from attempting to launch a missile even before it is fired.
Another arena of competition is space, which has emerged as an extended battlefield between both Koreas as they have successfully launched their own spy satellites into orbit in late 2023 and are gearing up to send more to better monitor each other amid an intensifying arms race. In November 2023, North Korea placed its first spy satellite into orbit, following two failed attempts, claiming to have photographed major South Korean and US military sites. Analysts speculate that North Korea may have made technological advancements in its space program with assistance from Russia, following a rare summit between leaders Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin in September 2023. At the year-end party meeting, Pyongyang also vowed to launch three more spy satellites in 2024, intending to use them for nuclear strike target selection and implementation.
Meanwhile, South Korea conducted a satellite launch in December 2023 from a US space test site as part of its initiative to develop an independent space-based surveillance system. South Korea aims to launch two additional military spy satellites this year to better monitor North Korea. Moreover, it plans to deploy four synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites by 2025 to enhance its space intelligence capabilities and is working on a system to launch heavier satellites into low Earth orbit. These satellites will be crucial for early detection of potential North Korean nuclear or missile attacks.
This competition for developing surveillance weapons signifies a significant evolution in the nature of military confrontations on the peninsula. Traditional air forces in both Koreas are increasingly being complemented by sophisticated, technology-driven capabilities, with a special emphasis on surveillance and unmanned attacks. This shift underscores the expanding scope of the Korean conflict, where air and space have become vital strategic domains in national security frameworks.
Against the backdrop of escalating tensions, North Korea has issued warnings of potential aircraft shootdowns as a response to US reconnaissance flights near the eastern coast of the peninsula in July 2023. These warnings came after allegations that US military reconnaissance aircraft have intruded into North Korea’s airspace above the military demarcation line in sea waters under its control. In August 2023, North Korean fighter jets were deployed in response to a US Air Force aircraft entering its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This situation harks back to historical aerial incidents, notably the 1969 downing of a US EC-121M by North Korean forces, serving as a stark reminder of the grave implications of current geopolitical tensions.
Amid the increased deployment of US strategic assets and intensified reconnaissance activities in the region, North Korea seems to be contemplating assertive responses. At a Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) session on January 16 this year, the leader, Kim Jong Un, emphasized that the constitution must be amended to specify exactly where sovereignty of the DPRK “is exercised.” The also stated the document must reflect how on the issue of “completely occupying, subjugating and reclaiming the ROK and annex it as a part of the [DPRK] territory.” Considering North Korea’s sensitivity to its airspace sovereignty, a possible strategy might be to declare North Korea’s own air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Such a move, however, could escalate aerial tensions and increase the likelihood of unintentional conflicts. For example, an ADIZ declared by North Korea might overlap with existing zones of South Korea or Japan, leading to confusion and potential aerial standoffs.
Furthermore, a North Korean ADIZ could lead to scenarios where aircraft are engaged unintentionally. Quick response protocols might result in shootdowns or confrontations before the nature of an incursion is fully understood. Therefore, the addition of an ADIZ by North Korea could add another layer of complexity and potential conflict to the security landscape on the Korean Peninsula. This risk is even further heightened by the potential for joint air drills involving the US, ROK and Japan in neutral air zones, and the possibility of countermeasures from North Korea in coordination with Russian and Chinese air forces. These developments are complicated by the lack of a comprehensive international legal framework governing aerial boundaries, a factor that heightens the risk of miscalculations and conflicts in an already volatile region.
Moreover, the recent escalation in aerial military capabilities and increasing tensions have been further aggravated by Kim Jong Un’s statements about preparing for the complete subjugation of South Korea, including the potential use of nuclear weapons. In light of the looming threat of nuclear war, the challenge of how the US and South Korea can effectively respond to potential military clashes with North Korea without triggering a full-scale nuclear confrontation is not only strategic but also existential.
In the current diplomatic landscape, where communication and cooperation between North and South Korea and North Korea and the US are constrained, effectively managing the situation to avert dramatic military clashes via air and space necessitates a nuanced strategy that delicately balances strategic deterrence with crisis management.
Given this, there is an urgent need for military talks between the DPRK, ROK and the US to work out a new agreement on surveillance protocols for aerial engagements. This protocol would not only act as a protective barrier against unintended aerial clashes, but also encompass measures to avoid provocative actions involving spy drones and surveillance aircraft.