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N Korea at crossroads

UN Command partly backs Korean plan to disarm DMZ

American-led forces silent on no-fly zones laid out in pact

South Korean soldiers remove land mines inside the demilitarized zone in early October.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- The United Nations Command expressed support on Friday for efforts by the two Koreas to remove land mines in the demilitarized zone and gradually disarm the border area, but stopped short of endorsing the no-fly zones that the countries have agreed to declare over the DMZ.

Defense experts and conservative hawks say the no-fly zones would limit surveillance capabilities, undermining South Korean superiority in intelligence gathering and precision strikes.

The American-led U.N. Command, which administers the southern half of the DMZ, announced that it has verified mine clearance efforts so far at the Joint Security Area, also known as the Panmunjom truce village. Future actions could include further mine removal, eliminating guard posts, reducing security personnel, removing certain weapons and repatriating service members' remains, it said.

Defense chiefs from both countries signed a comprehensive military agreement at September's summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Work to clear out mines in the Joint Security Area began earlier this month.

The agreement also includes provisions for no-fly zones at the DMZ, effective Nov. 1. Fixed-wing aircraft will not be allowed within 40 km of the military demarcation line in the east, and within 20 km in the west. Drones will be banned within 15 km in the east and 10 km in the west. Helicopters will be forbidden within 10 km along the entire demarcation line.

The U.S. opposes the no-fly-zone plans, Reuters reported on Thursday, citing two unidentified sources familiar with the matter. But a person close to the South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the next day that there is no difference of opinion between Washington and Seoul.

The outgoing leader of the American command on the Korean Peninsula, Gen. Vincent Brooks, is also commander of the U.N. Command. Until Friday, the U.N. Command had not taken a clear stance on the inter-Korean military pact, prompting observers to believe that Brooks had not gotten the go-ahead from Washington.

For now, the U.N. Command is publicly backing the military agreement only in part. But it appears to be supporting the accord in full behind the scenes. "They are reviewing the agreement within the U.N. Command, understanding all the areas, and taking measures necessary for comprehensive implementation," a source close to South Korea's Ministry of National Defense said.

The agreement also calls for consultations via a joint military committee on such matters as large-scale exercises, military buildup and surveillance activities. Such provisions risk limiting South Korea's independence in strengthening its defense capabilities. Questions remain as to whether parts of the agreement scheduled for November or later will be implemented.

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