Events on the Korean peninsula are among the most dramatic on the world stage. Amid cycles of rapprochement and disaffection between North and South, relations between Pyongyang and Washington careen back and forth from bellicosity to detente. At stake are not just North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs but also peace and security in North East Asia. China, the North’s most important ally, has cooperated in enforcing strict sanctions in an attempt to temper its partner’s bravado. But ultimately it prefers the status quo to the instability that would follow radical change. Crisis Group works to decrease the risk of war on the peninsula while advocating for creative solutions for all parties to implement as they pursue their long-term goals.
North Korea is testing the United States, issuing threats and launching short-range missile tests while talks over its nuclear program have stalled. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Duyeon Kim explains what could be motivating Pyongyang’s escalation and what to expect in 2020.
While speculation about health of DPRK leader Kim Jong-un increased, North Korea carried out further weapons tests and military exercises in continued demonstration of hard-line position, and South Korea’s ruling party won landslide general election. Concerns and speculation about Kim’s well-being arose as he remained out of public eye for over two weeks; meanwhile, Seoul and Beijing rejected reports Kim is critically ill. Pyongyang 9 April held artillery exercises overseen by DPRK leader Kim and 14 April tested possible cruise missiles and fighter jet-launched air-to-ground missiles; moves reportedly aimed at demonstrating regime strength domestically despite widely suspected COVID-19 outbreak. Chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff 14 April downplayed tests, saying they were not “particularly provocative or threatening to us”. Commander of U.S. forces in Korea 2 April said Pyongyang’s claim of having no COVID-19 cases was “impossible”, and that DPRK’s March weapons tests had “increased tension”. U.S. govt 15 April issued threat advisory warning about Pyongyang’s “malicious cyber activities”, saying it poses “significant threat to the integrity and stability of the international financial system”, said DPRK uses cyber-attacks “to generate revenue for its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs”. UN panel on sanctions 17 April released report claiming North Korea sharply increased trade in coal and oil products in 2019 with help of Chinese shipping industry in defiance of sanctions, but report removed from UN website same day. In South Korean general elections 15 April, incumbent-President Moon’s Democratic Party and allies won landslide victory securing 180 seats (increase of 57) of 300 available in National Assembly; despite COVID-19 fears, turnout over 66%, highest in eighteen years. U.S.-South Korea tensions continued over agreement for sharing cost of maintaining 28,500 U.S. troops on Korean peninsula; Reuters 10 April reported U.S. President Trump rejected Seoul’s offer of increased payment of at least 13% compared to previous accord.
The Kaesong Industrial Complex, closed since 2016, was the most successful joint economic venture undertaken by North and South Korea. Reopening the manufacturing zone, with improvements to efficiency and worker protections, could help broker wider cooperation and sustain peace talks on the peninsula.
Last June’s U.S.-North Korean summit cleared the atmosphere, but follow-up talks have accomplished little, meaning that dark clouds could easily gather again. To jump-start progress, negotiators should start small, moving incrementally toward realising the long-term goals of Washington, Pyongyang and Seoul.
The greatest risk to the 12 June summit between the U.S. and North Korea is mismatched expectations. To avoid a return to escalatory rhetoric, both parties should keep hopes modest and adopt an action-for-action approach as part of a four-step plan for denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula.
A nightmarish Korean peninsula war is closer than at any time in recent history. In the first of a two-part series, Crisis Group examines the interests and calculations of the states most affected or involved: North Korea, the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
Brinksmanship on the Korean peninsula threatens a potentially catastrophic military escalation. In this second report of a two-part series, Crisis Group lays out the steps to de-escalate the crisis and buy time for a more durable solution.
Prospects are bleak that the Six-Party Talks can lead to a denuclearised Korean peninsula, notably since North Korea has made nuclear weapons an integral part of its identity. The international community must open new channels of communication and interaction, give greater roles to international organisations, the private sector and civil society.
The results of South Korea’s elections tell other world leaders that their response to COVID-19 could determine their own political futures.
Elections have never been postponed in Korean history, not even during the Korean War or the H1N1 outbreak.
[Kim Jong Un]’s apparently trying to show his confidence and strength to his people[...] by pursuing its strategic objectives despite a national crisis over a virus they have no control over.
Every time things looks different in North Korea, they often can be the same. What Kim Jong Un is doing is drawing from the core policies, but putting his own stamp on them to build his own legacy.
[Ri Son Gwon's] appointment means Kim is putting in place the people he thinks will implement his marching orders.
...North Korea has proven to be very resilient and they can trudge along and work towards their economic and nuclear objectives.
The North Korean and U.S. leaders enter their second summit under pressure to achieve concrete progress toward their respective goals, sanctions relief and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Crisis Group Senior Adviser Christopher Green suggests risk reduction measures each side can take.
A new round of inter-Korean diplomacy commenced 18 September as the North and South Korean leaders met for a three-day summit. Meanwhile, U.S.-North Korean relations are reverting to previous bad form. Washington should welcome Seoul’s help in restarting productive contacts with Pyongyang.
Last week the world watched the first-ever meeting between a North Korean leader and a U.S. president. Crisis Group offers a 360-degree view of how the summit played in the U.S., the Korean peninsula, China and Japan – and what it may mean going forward.
Any successful deal with North Korea will require an extraordinary amount of patience and attention to detail.
Originally published in Politico Magazine