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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Seoul and Pyongyang are on Monday scheduled to begin a field survey on the shared use of the Han/Imjin River Estuary aimed at ensuring the safe navigation of civilian vessels.
The South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) and Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries (MOF) on Monday said the two Koreas would conduct the joint investigation in accordance with September’s inter-Korean military agreement.
September saw the two sides agree to “devise military assurance measures” to create a 70 kilometer long joint use zone within the Han/Imjin River Estuary.
General-level military talks in October at Panmunjom then saw the two agree to conduct the field survey in early November.
A 20-member joint survey team, composed of 10 individuals from each side including military officers and experts, will conduct a waterway survey, with the South also deploying six inspection vessels
The on-site survey, originally scheduled to begin Monday morning, has been postponed to later until the day due to the tide, however.
The project aims to investigate the water depth in which vessels can navigate safely, with inspectors measuring the depth from vessel to river bed as well as the rise and fall of seawater.
To complete the joint on-site survey by the end of December, the two sides have agree to proceed with divide up the work into three investigation areas.
“The inter-Korean waterway survey in the joint utilization of waters in Han River Estuary is first time in 65 years, since the armistice agreement was signed in 1953, that measures like this have been taken,” the South’s MND and MOF said.
Though the Korean War Armistice Agreement guaranteed the free navigation of civilian vessels in the Han River Estuary, free navigation has typically been restricted due to tensions between the two Koreas.
“Through the measure, the Han River Estuary — where there are very high chances that accidental clashes take place due to the absence of military demarcation line — will be transformed into a place of peace,” the ministries said.
Lee Dong-jae, Director General of the MOF’s Korea Hydrographic and Oceanographic Agency (KHOA), told a news conference on Monday that Seoul has prepared six vessels to “secure the accuracy and credibility of the investigation outcome.”
The ROK MOF plans to issue a nautical chart of the waters in Han River Estuary and provide it to the defense ministry by January.
Materials for the on-site inspection will be also provided to the North Korean side through the MND.
Speaking at the news conference, the KHOA said the inspection is scheduled to be conducted for 37 days between November 5 and December 11, while stressing that that time frame may be extended.
“The purpose of the investigation is basically to provide information which enables private vessels to navigate safely,” Lee told assembled media. “The important outcome is that we can provide the nautical chart…”
The South Korean government expects to spend around KRW499 million (USD$ 444,147) on the joint waterway survey, with Lee saying Seoul has been forced to borrow small-scale ships and portable survey equipment due to the difficulty of bringing large research vessels into the area.
A total of KRW418 million (USD$371,985) will be provided to a South Korean company from the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund (IKCF) in return for lending six vessels and equipment.
Meanwhile, the ROK defense ministry on Sunday announced that the two Koreas have pushed ahead with plans to withdraw 11 guard posts from each side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on a trial basis from November 1.
General-level military talks in October also saw both sides agree to “demolish” 22 guard posts by the end of November, and to complete mutual verification in December.
The North and South Korean militaries have exchanged and confirmed daily progress on the pullout of guard posts since November 1, the MND said, through the military communications line on the west coast.
Sunday saw the two Koreas raise yellow-colored flags on 11 guard posts to be demolished to allow for “clear identification and verification.”
“The measure is to improve mutual confidence and transparency as South and North Korean military authorities clearly observe and confirm the withdrawal progress of guard posts,” the defense ministry said.
MND spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo was unable to confirm the timing of demolishing guard posts, however, at a regular briefing on Monday.
Progress in inter-Korean ties, however, comes as the South Korean and U.S. Marine Corps on Monday kick off the joint Marine Exchange Program (KMEP) military drills.
In October, the Republic of Korea Marine Corps (ROKMC) announced its plan to conduct the KMEP 24 times next year.
“We’ve said that military drills between the ROK and the U.S. at the level of battalion and below will be staged throughout the year as scheduled,” spokesperson Choi told a press briefing on Monday.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in June said both sides had agreed to “indefinitely suspend select military exercises,” including Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) and two KMEP training exercises.
2016 and 2017 saw the KMEP training exercises be conducted 14 and 17 times respectively, the ROK military previously said, adding the number of KMEP training exercises was slashed from 19 to 11 this year due to DPRK-U.S. and inter-Korean dialogue.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Doo Ho Kim’s Flickr