Following the Korean War of the early 1950s, North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, adopted a provocative foreign policy against the Republic of Korea, the official name of South Korea. However, the two countries reached rapprochement in 2018, resulting in the exchange of senior official visits, summits, and most importantly the signing of the Comprehensive Military Agreement. 

The agreement, dubbed the “Sept. 19 military agreement”, was signed by former South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on September 19, 2018. The agreement is instrumentally important in maintaining peace in the Korean Peninsula; however, the pact has recently been consecutively underpinned by Pyongyang.

The 2018 military pact was aimed to reduce tension between the two Koreas and avoid war. The pact involved restricting the two countries from pursuing any inflammatory actions including military drills, building guard posts and other propaganda-related activities near the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

However, the North Korean regime continues to pursue provocative action following the deadlock of its second summit with the US in 2019 in Hanoi. North Korea has continued to test ballistic missiles and continental ballistic missiles, flying military satellites and pursuing its nuclear program. The action is not only violating international law but also threatening its neighbours.

Recently, North Korea has pursued a dangerous step by sending nearly 1000 trash-filled balloons into South Korea, scattering them throughout the country. Despite the balloons containing no dangerous substance, the North Korean action contradicted the peace pact and could lead to miscalculation and escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The South Korean military could shoot down any flying balloon if they were perceived as containing any dangerous substances such as explosive devices or chemical or biological weapons, which could indiscriminately cause danger to civilians or damage property. However, South Korea’s restraint rested mainly on the 2018 peace pact.

It has been widely discussed that the Pyongyang regime’s sending of balloons across the border to South Korea is in response to South Korean activists and North Korean refugees flying balloons with attached s anti-Kim Jong UN leaflets and USB flash drives of South Korean movies and K-pop songs, and sometimes magazines. These materials and content are strongly prohibited in North Korea.

Sending trash balloons across the border is North Korea’s most dangerous action since North Korea announced its unilateral withdrawal from the 2018 military agreement with South Korea in November 2023. North Korea has increased the building of guard posts and the digging of trenches, and has deployed artillery and heavy weapons to the border. These actions have led some analysts to believe that North Korea is preparing for war.

In January of 2024, North Korea conducted a three-day military exercise on its western coast, close to the South Korean border. The drills, which involved the firing of artillery shells, resulted in a pause in daily socio-economic activities and the evacuation of South Korean citizens in the area to safe places. North Korea’s actions effectively damaged the September 19 military agreement, which aimed to reduce tension along the military demarcation line.

In addition to the recent increase in testing missiles and flying military satellites into orbit, North Korea's recent sending of trash-carrying balloons may escalate the situation, sending it spiralling out of control.

It should be noted that despite the fact that the balloons contain no dangerous substances, they have caused panic among civilians, as well as property damage. The balloon has affected public safety, as was raised by South Korea’s Deputy Principal National Security Advisor Kim Tae-hyo.

“North Korea’s recent provocations have caused real harm and threats to South Korean citizens and negatively impacted the military’s readiness posture,” he said.

South Korean residents living near the border region were also encouraged to stay at home.

This series of provocative actions, including sending trash balloons, has prompted a response from South Korea. While promising to “firmly punish” North Korea, South Korea’s presidential National Security Council (NSC) suspended the 2018 military agreement until North Korea stopped pursuing provocative and dangerous actions. This should help increase the credibility of South Korea’s “Three-Axis System” of deterrence, which involved pre-emptive strikes against North Korea’s nuclear sites and missile defence systems, if provoked.

The suspension of the peace pact, in the face of growing North Korea’s provocative action, is not surprising as it could provide more room and flexibility for South Korea to respond militarily to Pyongyang. While it could pave the way for the South Korean military to shoot down any balloons sent by North Korea, South Korea could also conduct military exercises and resume loudspeaker propaganda along the border.

Overall, North Korea’s provocative actions have severely damaged the 2018 peace pact, which plays an important role in reducing tension between the two countries. South Korea’s recent suspension of the peace pact will give it more room to respond militarily to provocative action by its northern neighbours.

Rim Sokvy is a research fellow at the Cambodian Center for Regional Studies (CCRS). His research focuses on Cambodian foreign policy and its engagement with Southeast and East Asia. The views expressed are his own.