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.
On 24 June, Pyongyang abruptly stopped threats it had been making at Seoul for weeks, although the underpinnings of inter-Korean friction remain. Peninsular tensions could stay on simmer or escalate depending on how the parties manage an uncertain time before the U.S. election.
North Korea rebuffed Washington’s diplomatic overtures, top U.S. officials visited South Korea, and Pyongyang conducted provocative missile tests. U.S. 15 March confirmed that it had attempted to reach out to Pyongyang through several channels since mid-Feb, with no response from Pyongyang; North Korea’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui 17 March called U.S. efforts “cheap tricks”, claiming that no dialogue would be possible until Washington drops its hostile policy. U.S. Sec Defence Lloyd Austin and Sec State Antony Blinken 17 March met with South Korean FM Chung Eui-yong and Defence Minister Suh Wook in South Korean capital Seoul; Blinken accused North Korea of committing “systemic and widespread abuses” against its people. Meeting concluded with joint statement emphasising that North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issues are priority for alliance. Shortly after visit, North Korea 21 March fired two cruise missiles into Yellow Sea; U.S. and Japan 24 March confirmed North Korea subsequently fired two suspected ballistic missiles into Sea of Japan, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting such tests; Japan and South Korea condemned launches while U.S. President Biden 25 March said he was open to diplomacy but warned Pyongyang not to escalate. Earlier in month, U.S. and South Korea 7 March reached deal for new six-year Special Measures Agreement that includes 13.9% increase in Seoul’s contribution to cost of hosting some 28,500 U.S. troops for 2021. U.S. and South Korea 8-16 March held nine-day joint military exercises, noting exercises are “defensive” in nature and had been scaled back because of COVID-19; Kim Yo-jong, senior official and sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, 16 March condemned exercises, warning that U.S. should refrain from “causing a stink.” Pyongyang 18 March said it would sever diplomatic relations with Malaysia after North Korean man previous day extradited to U.S. on money-laundering charges. Kim Jong-un 22 March stressed to Chinese President Xi need to strengthen unity and cooperation between both countries. International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi 2 March said North Korea continues developments of its nuclear program which remains “cause for serious concern.”
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.
To say there is a partial transfer of power seems to be an exaggeration, given the system in North Korea.
If the defector is in fact the cause for the Kaesong lockdown, then North Korea doesn’t need to deny infections anymore and can blame its epidemic on defectors and imported cases from South Korea.
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.
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.
Watch List Updates complement International Crisis Group’s annual Watch List, most recently published in January 2019. These early-warning publications identify major conflict situations in which prompt action, driven or supported by the European Union and its member states, would generate stronger prospects for peace. The Watch List Updates include situations identified in the annual Watch List and/or a new focus of concern.
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.