South Korea approves suspension of military deal with North Korea after tensions over trash balloons

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South Korea on Tuesday took steps to suspend a contentious military agreement with North Korea and resume frontline military activities, as tensions between the rivals are rising over the North’s recent launch of trash-carrying balloons.

North Korea didn’t immediately respond, but South Korea’s resumption of firing exercises or propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts will likely prompt North Korea to take similar or stronger steps along the rivals’ tense border.

In the past week, North Korea has used balloons to drop manure, cigarette butts, scraps of cloth and waste paper on South Korea, prompting Seoul to vow “unbearable” retaliation. On Sunday, North Korea said it would halt its balloon campaign.

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On Tuesday, South Korea’s Cabinet Council and President Yoon Suk Yeol approved a proposal to suspend the 2018 inter-Korean agreement on lowering frontline military tensions. It will take effect once Seoul formally notifies the North.

Cho Chang-rae, South Korea’s deputy defense minister for policy, told reporters that South Korea will use all available measures to protect the public from North Korean provocations.

“The responsibility for this situation lies solely with North Korea. If North Korea launches additional provocations, our military, in conjunction with the solid the South Korea-U.S. defense posture, will punish North Korea swiftly, strongly and to the end,” Cho said.

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The military agreement — reached during a short-lived era of reconciliation between the Koreas — required the two countries to cease all hostile acts at border areas, such as live firing drills, aerial drills and psychological warfare.

During the cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, South Korea’s No. 2 official, said the 2018 deal has weakened South Korean military readiness at a time when the North’s provocations pose real threats to the public. Han cited North Korea’s balloon campaign,tests of nuclear-capable weapons targeting South Korea, and alleged jamming of GPS navigation signals in the South.

South Korean officials said the suspension of the 2018 deal would allow it to stage frontline military drills but didn’t publicly elaborate on other steps. Observers say South Korea was considering restarting frontline propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts, a Cold War-style psychological campaign that experts say has stung in rigidly controlled North Korea, whose 26 million people are mostly not allowed access to foreign news.

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The 2018 deal was already in limbo after the two Koreas took some steps in breach of it amid tensions over North Korea’s spy satellite launch last November.

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