The recent exchange of aggressive rhetoric between North Korea and the U.S. over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and missile program has been one of the most vitriolic to date, posing a serious threat to security in the region and beyond. North Korea continues to violate UN resolutions as it accelerates its nuclear program and carries out ballistic missile tests at a quickened pace. Beijing, its most important ally and trading partner, is frustrated by its neighbour’s policy but prefers continuity of the status quo to the instability that would follow radical change. Crisis Group works to decrease the risk of nuclear and conventional war on the peninsula while directing our regional and global advocacy at identifying opportunities for cooperation between stakeholders on all sides.
North Korea’s sixth nuclear test heightens regional anxieties and is dangerous for populations living nearby. But in itself it does not fundamentally alter the situation nor should it raise the risk of military conflict. Instead, it should spur the U.S., South Korea and China to forge a stronger, more effective and more united diplomatic approach.
North Korea’s launch of intermediate range ballistic missile over northern Japan 29 Aug, triggering warning sirens in region, prompted condemnatory UN Security Council (UNSC) statement and added to tensions over country’s nuclear program; Pyongyang said more ballistic missile launches to come. Earlier in month, U.S. responded to North Korea’s two July intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests by test-launching ICBM from its west coast 2 Aug. President Trump 8 Aug warned that provocative DPRK actions would be met with “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen”; Pyongyang responded announcing plans to test-launch missiles into area close to U.S. territory Guam if U.S. continued with its threatening stance, including participation in annual joint military exercise in South Korea. Exercise went ahead as planned 21-31 Aug, prompting North Korea to repeat its Guam warning; Russia 23 Aug flew nuclear-capable bombers around Korean peninsula. UNSC strengthened sanctions against North Korea 5 Aug, unanimously adopting Resolution 2371 banning country’s principal exports (coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore, seafood). Chinese Foreign Minister Wang 7 Aug told his North Korean counterpart UN sanctions are “necessary, but not the end-goal”, China wants North Korea to return to negotiating table. North Korea fired several short-range projectiles into sea off east coast 26 Aug; U.S. Sec State Tillerson 22 Aug voiced openness to possible dialogue, 27 Aug said U.S. would continue working with allies to bring Pyongyang to negotiating table. U.S. military chief 15 Aug held unprecedented discussions on contingency plans with Chinese military command responsible for north-eastern region bordering North Korea. South Korean President Moon in 15 Aug speech reiterated that “military action on the Korean Peninsula can only be decided by South Korea”, which “will block war by whatever means necessary”; 17 Aug said he would consider sending special envoy to Pyongyang for talks if Pyongyang freezes its nuclear and missile tests.
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.
In the shadow of growing North Korean threats, South Korea needs to reform its intelligence apparatus to restore public confidence while enhancing the country’s intelligence capacity.
North Korea’s belligerent behaviour is testing the patience of China, its principal backer, but a consequential Chinese policy change, which the U.S. and its allies hope for, is not likely soon.
Despite last week’s abrupt shuffle at the top of the military leadership, Kim Jŏng-ŭn appears to be firmly established as the new leader of North Korea, completing a faster and smoother power transition than many experts anticipated.
Although North Korea has offered unconditional dialogue since January, South Korea is maintaining a tough policy line towards the North as Seoul approaches a year of electoral campaign politics. The risk of conflict remains serious, particularly in the area near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the military demarcation in the Yellow Sea.
As the number of defectors from North Korea arriving in the South has surged in the past decade, reconfiguring integration programs for them has become crucial.
China is implementing the sanctions [on North Korea] with unprecedented rigor and determination. But does that mean everything is being followed through completely? Not necessarily.
China views its agreement with the new [UN] sanctions [against North Korea] as a favour to the U.S. and will now expect something in return.
To the degree that North Korea knows that the international community is going to punish it for conducting its sixth nuclear test there is no incentive not to do something else provocative on Sept. 9.
[South Korean President Moon Jae-in's] strategy [of seeking dialogue to deal with North Korea] cannot possibly survive these kind of circumstances at this time, so he beefs up the military side of things.
China sees sanctions as punishment for bad behaviour rather than an effective means of achieving disarmament [of North Korea].
[Frustration] has created space for a wider policy debate in China, between those who think China has to stand behind North Korea and those who call for abandoning it and cooperating more with the U.S.
North Korea’s launch of a missile over Japan was irresponsible – yet it was more of a carefully calculated risk than a reckless gamble. Pyongyang’s goal is not a shooting war but to build up military and nuclear capabilities that serve strategic aims of survival and force protection.
Originally published in The Interpreter