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 31 May, Pyongyang tried – and failed – to send a military reconnaissance satellite into space. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Chris Green explains why it took this action and what can be done to keep regional tensions from rising.
Inter-Korean tensions escalated after North Korea fired artillery near South Korean island and formally dropped goal of unification, signalling Pyongyang’s intention to stoke tensions on peninsula in 2024.
North and South Korea exchanged fire at sea, raising risk of major crisis. North Korea starting 5 Jan fired more than 200 rounds of artillery shells into seas around South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. In response, South Korea same day launched more than 400 artillery shells into same waters, having ordered civilians to seek shelter on island. Incident follows collapse in Nov 2023 of agreement reached at Sept 2018 inter-Korean summit, which had prohibited artillery fire in area, and may indicate North Korea’s intention to drastically raise tensions by manufacturing conditions for deadly clash in West Sea – scene of past deadly maritime escalations.
North Korean leader took aim at reunification. Leader Kim Jong Un 15 Jan announced that Supreme People’s Assembly “newly legalised the policy of [North Korea] toward the south on the basis of putting an end to the nearly 80 year-long history of inter-Korean relations and recognising the two states both existing on the Korean peninsula”; Kim also called for reinforcement of land border with south, dissolved institutions dealing with inter-Korean relations, and urged constitutional revision to eliminate references such as “northern half” of peninsula. Moves mark most assertive measures against South Korea in recent years, likely aimed at countering Seoul’s soft power, exerting pressure on U.S. and south in election year and diminishing public resistance to war; steps nonetheless are reversible and align with Kim’s framework for reunification through federation – one state under two systems.
Pyongyang conducted weapons testing. 14 Jan tested solid-fuel hypersonic missile with intermediate range and 19 Jan conducted test of nuclear-capable underwater attack drone. North Korea 24, 28 and 30 Jan test fired cruise missiles into waters off western coast.
Russia and North Korea continued engagement. North Korean FM Choe Son Hui 16 Jan met Russian President Putin in Russian capital Moscow in bid to "strengthen strategic and tactical cooperation". UK 22 Jan presented fresh evidence to UN indicating transfer of North Korean weapons to Russia for Ukraine war.
We are in a situation where North Korea can rely on Russia and China more than has been the case in decades.
Politics is a full-contact sport in South Korea and there is no sign of any sort of balanced politics at the moment.
On 9 March, South Koreans voted a conservative, Yoon Suk-yeol, into the presidency to replace the left-leaning Moon Jae-in. Yoon has taken a harder rhetorical line than his predecessor toward Pyongyang. But a dramatic shift in North Korea policy is unlikely.
Pyongyang’s string of missile tests at the turn of 2022 indicates its discontent with how diplomacy has sputtered on the Korean peninsula since the 2019 summit. Fresh overtures may fall short of bringing it back to the table, but they are worth a try.
The latest five-day plenum of North Korea’s ruling party focused on food insecurity, chief among the nation’s challenges. With the pandemic not yet tamed and other uncertainty on the international scene, Pyongyang may continue refraining from major provocations into 2022, but for how long is unclear.
North and South Korea have recently staged displays of military prowess, causing some to worry about an accelerating arms race. But both countries were playing politics. Any uptick in tensions is likely to come after the Beijing Olympics and South Korean elections in March 2022.
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.
Two years have passed since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's historic Singapore summit. But nuclear diplomacy remains stuck and the 2018 June Singapore Joint Statement has not been implemented. The coronavirus pandemic and U.S. presidential elections in November might convince both capitals to kick the can down the road until next year, at the earliest. But Pyongyang's nuclear weapons capability continues to advance without restrictions.
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.
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.
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