SEOUL, South Korea will face a series of tricky challenges in its push for inter-Korean arms control unless decisive progress is made in efforts to denuclearize North Korea, analysts said Sunday, with a second summit between Pyongyang and Washington imminent.
In a biennial white paper published last month, Seoul's defense ministry underscored its determination to advance the "phased" conventional arms control agenda in line with a reconciliatory mood on the peninsula.
However, concerns remain that Seoul's arms control drive could put its military at a disadvantage when Pyongyang has yet to take substantive steps to reduce asymmetrical threats, especially its nuclear arsenal. China and Japan have also been seeking to bolster their own combat capabilities amid worries about the possibility of a regional arms race.
"Much ink has been spilled debating whether the arms control approach to facilitate denuclearization would work amid a lack of palpable signs that the North is following through on its commitment to forgoing nuclear arms," Nam Chang-hee, a professor of international politics, said.
"Positive assessments of the approach may only be limited, but it may also be inappropriate to undercut that approach given that it has helped defuse tensions on the peninsula anyway in the eyes of the international audience," he added.
Last year, the Koreas agreed on a series of confidence-building and arms control measures under the Comprehensive Military Agreement aimed at reducing border tensions and preventing accidental clashes.
Under the agreement, they have set up ground, air and maritime buffer zones to halt "all hostile acts" against each other, removed some border guard posts and disarmed the Joint Security Area, while preparing for a joint project to excavate Korean War troop remains in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from April through October.
Seoul is pushing for consultations with Pyongyang this year over the proposed destruction of all guard posts in the DMZ, which officials here say would mark a significant milestone in cross-border arms control.
Seoul appears to be turning to the traditional arms control playbook featuring three major steps confidence building and "operational and structural" arms control processes in a linear progression or in a way that the steps are combined to attain its objectives.
Operational arms control refers to the repositioning of front-line military equipment or facilities to make them less threatening to a potential adversary, while structural control means curtailing the numbers of troops and weapons systems.
Officials here believe that the Koreas are currently taking "entry-level" steps toward operational arms control.
"At this point, Seoul and Pyongyang are edging toward operational arms control, and they would seek to make progress in this direction when they form an inter-Korean military committee designed to discuss this issue and others," an official at Seoul's defense ministry told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.
Still, skeptics voice doubts over whether Seoul's push for arms control can continue to gain traction amid the absence of tangible progress in the denuclearization of North Korea.
Observers are pinning hopes on the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, slated for late next month, as both are under mounting pressure to map out a clear road map for "complete denuclearization" that they agreed to in their first summit last June.
In the quest for arms control, threats from outside the peninsula also come into play.
"When we are taking steps for arms control, we also need to consider their compatibility with the regional security landscape vis-a-vis neighboring countries like Japan that has been keen on heavier armament," said Park Won-gon, a professor of security studies, at Handong Global University.
Military tensions between South Korea and Japan have spiked in recent week, as Tokyo's maritime patrol plane conducted what Seoul calls "threatening" low-altitude flybys close to its Navy vessels in December and last month.
On the pretext of countering threats from an increasingly assertive China and nuclearizing North Korea, Japan has been beefing up its defense capabilities in the pursuit of a "normal" state with a full-fledged military not just "self-defense" forces.
Analysts also said that Seoul needs to factor in the military capabilities required for it to retake wartime operational control (OPCON) from Washington. Arms control with Pyongyang could weaken its efforts to meet the requirements for the OPCON transfer, they said.
Source: Yonhap news Agency