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.
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.
North Korea increased tensions with another round of what Japan said appeared to be missile launches 28 Nov, and threatened further launches, while relations between U.S. and South Korea grew more strained over negotiations on cost-sharing for U.S. troop presence. North Korean missiles 28 Nov flew into sea between Korean peninsula and Japan; Pyongyang 30 Nov threatened ballistic missiles would fly over Japan “in the not distant future”. Earlier in month, Pyongyang 13 Nov warned U.S. would face “bigger threat and harsh suffering” if Kim Jong-un’s unilaterally-imposed end-2019 deadline is “ignored”, continuing pressure on U.S. to offer proposal on nuclear deal; Pyongyang demanding U.S. and South Korea halt joint military drills and lift sanctions. Washington and Seoul 17 Nov announced postponement of joint air drills as good-will gesture; Pyongyang dismissed it, said it was not interested in talks “that bring nothing to us” and would not “gift the U.S. president with something he can boast of”. North Korean state media 25 Nov reported Kim ordered artillery drills near disputed inter-Korean maritime border while inspecting military unit on islet off west coast, in first known trip to front-line military unit since entering nuclear diplomacy with U.S.; artillery firing aimed toward South Korea, which expressed regret saying drills violated 2018 inter-Korean military agreement. Third round of negotiations between U.S. and South Korea on how to divide cost for maintaining U.S. troops on Korean peninsula ended abruptly 20 Nov, amid renewed tensions after U.S. President Trump demanded Seoul pay 400% (about $5bn) more in 2020. South Korean newspaper 20 Nov reported U.S. considering withdrawing one brigade (3,000-4,000 troops) if sides unable to reach agreement by end of 2019; U.S. denied. Seoul 22 Nov postponed with conditions its controversial decision to terminate intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, which had omitted South Korea from its “white list” of trusted trading partners. South Korean and Chinese defence ministers 17 Nov agreed to establish more military hotlines, in apparent message and warning to Washington.
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.
Any US government that is serious about making headway with NK in negotiations should be quietly funding info freedom activities as well.
For the U.S., it would be politically unacceptable and a terrible idea to trade all economic sanctions for the dismantlement of Yongbyon, as Kim seems to have demanded.
The @realDonaldTrump and @SecPompeo presser this afternoon was revealing, & seems to give contours of a path forward. For one thing, Trump emphasized productivity of discussion and positivity of tone on all sides. Doesn't mean it wasn't a setback, but talks will likely continue.
A relatively modest trade would help kickstart a more meaningful diplomatic process [between the U.S. and North Korea]. A verified shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facility wouldn’t end North Korea’s program but it could be significant.
The [U.S.] president is prepared to bluster and threaten, but he also wants to achieve the deal of the century. With North Korea, it worked because he had a willing partner. The problem he’s going to face with Iran is that the leaders there believe a meeting would validate his strategy
Broadly speaking, one side [the U.S.] wants denuclearization first, normalization of relations later, and the other [North Korea] wants normalization of relations first, then denuclearization later.
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