Recently, the political courtship between North and South Korea led to the two states signing an agreement that, among other things, establishes a no-fly zone in the vicinity of the North and South Korean border. This military accord has been hailed by some as a landmark step toward North Korea’s eventual denuclearization. After all, a ratcheting down of tensions between the two Koreas is widely seen as symbolic of North Korea’s stance with the world at large for one simple reason: when Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae In are engaged in diplomatic talks, the world seems free from the risk of North Korean nuclear missiles.
However, as is so often the case with geopolitics, progress toward peace may be touted as the universal goal guiding all politicians and world leaders, but capturing, maintaining and demonstrating leverage is not only a concern that often shares equal footing with the public pursuit of peace, but in its own way, often goes further toward ensuring it.
The no-fly zone that will be established per the new agreement, which American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with, really serves less as a mutual agreement and more as a show of good faith toward North Korea. South Korea and its primarily military ally, the United States, regularly execute fixed-wing aircraft training within the 80-kilometer wide band of airspace surrounding the border that will soon be considered unavailable to military aircraft. This compromises the joint U.S. and South Korean force’s ability to train for the possibility of repelling a North Korean advance, which raises a number of concerns about how feasible defending the border could be if ever faced with a concerted North Korea invasion.
Of course, even some within the military will contend that these adjustments in training strategy will have little effect on troop readiness in the immediate future. After all, many of the forces located at the border have been training alongside one another for years. However, as the timeline of diplomacy stretches on into years, or even decades, barring close air support exercises anywhere near the border will ensure the troops of tomorrow have no practical experience to pull from if warming relations today turn cold again in the years to come.
These concerns, however, are secondary to the less-touted matter of surrendering leverage to the North Korean government. U.S. and South Korean forces aren’t particularly concerned with North Korea’s Air Force conducting close air support drills of their own — in effect, this “no-fly zone” is really an agreement to stop conducting show of force operations on North Korea’s doorstep. In what had once become a regular facet of Korean diplomacy, American long range bombers have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to strike targets in the region using dummy ordnance as a means to apply pressure to Kim’s regime. This agreement will neuter America’s ability to make such grandiose spectacles of its firepower within eye and earshot of North Korea’s capital. Making sure your opponent can watch you drop guided bombs in their backyard may sound a bit on the nose for international diplomacy, but the truth is, these exercises do have a notable effect not only on world leaders, but on the populations they find themselves beholden to.
It’s important to note that this agreement — while effectively trading some of America and South Korea’s military capabilities away in favor of nothing more than good faith — only aspires to be a step toward denuclearization. Aside from a few symbolic gestures with widespread media acclaim, there remains little evidence that Kim Jong Un even intends to dismantle his nuclear arsenal. South Korea may, in fact, be offering up kind gestures based on nothing more than the hope that Kim will soon begin following suit.
And while only time will tell if South Korea’s President Moon is right, many within the American defense infrastructure can’t help but bite their tongue when they see their leverage — used as both a military deterrent and political pressure point — traded away with nothing gained in return but the promise of a peace that may never truly come.