Ex-USFK chief raises prospects of tensions following suspension of inter-Korean military accord

Bomi Yoon

Former U.S. Forces Korea Commander Curtis Scaparrotti is shown in this undated file photo, captured from the YouTube livestreaming of a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Yonhap.

A former U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) chief raised the possibility Thursday that tensions on the Korean Peninsula could rise to a level unseen in recent years as North Korea walked away from a 2018 inter-Korean military accord following South Korea’s partial suspension of it.

Retired Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who led USFK from 2013-2016, also expressed his “greatest concern” over the absence of dialogue with Pyongyang, as the two Koreas have started to restore activities suspended under the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) aimed at reducing cross-border tensions and preventing accidental clashes.

Seoul partially suspended the CMA in response to Pyongyang’s launch of a space rocket last week. The North later said it would “never” be bound by the CMA, and started reinstalling guard posts and weapons in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas.

“My view is this. I think it will introduce a level of tension again that we’ve not seen since the CMA was put in place in 2018,” he said at the forum hosted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Scaparrotti touched on a series of steps that the two Koreas took under the CMA, including moving troop positions on both sides away from the DMZ.

He, in particular, pointed out South Korea installed sensors and electronic devices for an early warning program along the border instead of putting troops right on the DMZ — a posture change, which he called “some real positive.”

“I hope that they will balance how they react to this,” he said. “We will see what happens but overall, I think it probably will lead to a little more opportunity for tension than we’ve had here recently.”

Describing the overall contours of security in Korea, he noted that Pyongyang has been advancing in “almost every area” of their weapons programs — a development that he stressed as a “real cause for concern.”

“They now have missile and nuclear capability that’s greater in diversity and lethality, and in scope than they’ve had,” he said.

With the two North Korean backers, China and Russia, the North is in a place to “act with a little more ease and a little more agility,” the retired general said.

“My greatest concern is we’re not talking to North Korea,” he said.

Commenting on deterrence efforts by South Korea and the U.S., Scaparrotti applauded the Washington Declaration that South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden issued during their April summit to strengthen the credibility of extended deterrence, the U.S.’ commitment to using the full range of its military capabilities to defend its ally.

But he called for concrete action to ensure the declaration will deliver effective deterrence. He stressed the need to improve the command and control apparatus in the South Korea-U.S. alliance to enhance communications, particularly in terms of military data transfers.

“Even though we’ve spent 70 years together, we still have areas that we keep isolated with each country,” he said. “And it impacts your ability to communicate across the entire spectrum at the speed which you need to do warfare.”

Scaparrotti underscored the importance of the South Korea-based U.N. Command (UNC) for security on the peninsula.

“Its activity with respect to stabilizing activity on the peninsula is often not fully realized, but it’s powerful and it’s very important,” he said

“Those 17 (UNC member) countries have influence through their national powers, and some of those actually still have consulates in North Korea, or at least they have diplomatic relations … so they can assist here in this communications with North Korea,” he added.

Led by a U.S. general, UNC enforces the armistice agreement that halted fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War. During annual defense ministerial talks this month, Seoul and Washington agreed to seek to expand UNC membership. (Yonhap)

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