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.
Tensions remained high following North Korea’s killing of South Korean official at sea and amid concerns that North Korea might test weapon in Oct. Concerns grew that Pyongyang may intensify provocative actions as North Korean soldiers 22 Sept shot and killed South Korean fisheries official at de facto maritime border; Pyongyang warned of tensions if South Korean naval operations continued search for body; DPRK 25 Sept apologised for shooting. Pyongyang may display or test new or advanced weaponry, including possible submarine-launched ballistic missile, in lead up to 10 Oct military parade to celebrate North Korea’s 75th anniversary; Pyongyang is yet to demonstrate “new strategic weapon” announced in Dec 2019. Analysis platform 38 North 14 Sept reported satellite imagery showing four new temporary structures that may be storage units for large missile systems, including launching vehicles. Vice chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff John Hyten 17 Sept said North Korea possesses “small number” of nuclear weapons with “capabilities that can threaten their neighbours” or U.S. Ahead of 21-24 Sept International Atomic Energy Agency conference in Vienna, U.S. 19 Sept called on international efforts to achieve “fully verified denuclearization of North Korea”. Amid continued international concern over North Korea breaking UN sanctions limit on importing fuel, South Korean Yonhap news agency 2 Sept reported findings from data analytics firm Kharon alleging Russian companies Gazprom and Rosneft shipped oil worth $26mn to Pyongyang in 2018 and 2019. U.S. govt 11 Sept also accused two Hong Kong companies of acquiring over $300mn worth of communications equipment for DPRK, violating UN sanctions. Amid economic and humanitarian difficulties in North Korea due to COVID-19 concerns and floods, U.S. Deputy Sec State Steve Biegun 11 Sept said Washington will ease restrictions for U.S. aid workers traveling to country. South Korean vice FM Choi 10 Sept announced Washington and Seoul had agreed to launch a high-level dialogue channel in Oct to run parallel to U.S.-South Korean Working Group; however, U.S. state department reportedly only said they would “positively consider” move, leading to domestic criticism of Choi.
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.