South Korea’s defense minister on Thursday dismissed concerns over imminent disarmament, while admitting that Seoul has reviewed the withdrawal of troops from frontline areas in the context of the country’s broader defense reforms.
Speaking at a closed-door news conference marking the one anniversary of his inauguration as Minister of National Defense, Song Young-moo said any reduction of firepower on the inter-Korean border would have to follow further trust-building between Pyongyang and Seoul.
Since South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader’s agreement in April to “alleviate acute military tensions” between the two countries, concerns over a premature ROK relaxation of defensive posture have emerged.
In response to recent local media reports that the South Korean military will push ahead with the relocation of frontline units, Song denied a link to improved inter-Korean relations while acknowledging the plans exist.
“We are reviewing the withdrawal of troops [from forward areas] in the framework of defense reform,” the South Korean minister said in a statement carried by local media.
“Nothing we’ve done so far is because of North Korea.”
South Korean newspaper the Munhwa Ilbo on Monday first reported that the ROK military has discussed the possibility of arms reduction on the inter-Korean border in four phases.
Seoul has reportedly considered the withdrawal of core front-line units in preparation for disarmament negotiations between the two Koreas.
The South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) has denied the report.
Speaking at Thursday’s news conference, Song also explained that a plan to establish a Ground Operations Command by merging the 1st and 3rd Armies has been delayed to “maintain the stability” of the South Korean military and that it is not related to ongoing talks with Pyongyang.
“Trust-building between the South and the North should precede that,” Song said. “Both sides might deceive each other when we make mention of disarmament without confidence building, and this is why we attempt to build trust first.”
The issue of arms control can only be raised when the two Koreas achieve “complete confidence-building,” he added, and would likely follow further general and defense ministerial-level meetings, an additional inter-Korean summit, and when a more concrete plan for denuclearization by the North is agreed on.
Song said the military had already taken “feasible” steps to reduce tensions, citing last month’s re-establishment of communications lines as one example.
The defense minister said the South’s arms control verification agency has done “a lot of research” on the disarmament issue, however.
“It can be implemented in a phased manner moving forward to the establishment of peace and several stages can be mixed,” he told assembled media. “But we are only at the beginning stage.”
With regard to recent changes in the security situation on the Korean peninsula, Song said the military is prepared for multiple scenarios.
“While inter-Korean and the North-U.S. relations improve, we should maintain military readiness and build the structure of troops and military strength,” Song said. “We also should prepare for if things do not work out.”
As a follow-up measure to April’s Panmunjom Declaration, the two Koreas removed propaganda loudspeakers on the border areas, and last month agreed to “completely restore” inter-Korean military communication lines on the east and west coast.
Tuesday saw the South Korean government announce the tentative suspension of the large-scale annual civil Ulchi defense drills, citing the changing security situation on the peninsula.
The ROK military’s independent Taeguk command post exercise (CPX) — originally scheduled to be staged in June — has also been postponed until October.
The decision to draw down the two exercises came weeks after the U.S. and ROK military decided to suspend the Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military exercise.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Singapore’s Strait Times on Thursday that Washington and Seoul had suspended the drills “to build trust to continue the dialogue” with Pyongyang.
The ROK leader reiterated that the U.S. and the South had “positively assessed the North’s recent change in its attitude” – including its commitment to denuclearize.
“We share the view that we have to consider the North’s interests correspondingly, and we’ve decided to suspend the joint ROK-U.S. military exercise as long as dialogue is maintained,” he said.
Moon also ruled out any reduction in U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula in the near future – a possibility alluded to by President Donald Trump in Singapore last month.
“The issue is one between the ROK-U.S. alliance and it is not an agenda that can be discussed in the process of denuclearization negotiations between the North and the U.S.,” the President said.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND)
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