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.
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.
Talks between U.S. and North Korea almost ground to a halt with cancellation by North Korea of 7 Nov planned meeting in New York between U.S. Sec State Mike Pompeo and North Korean counterpart Kim Yong-chol. Cancellation of talks followed statement from regime-linked North Korean think-tank floating idea that Pyongyang could restart nuclear activities if sanctions relief is not forthcoming. In interview with U.S. broadcaster 15 Nov, U.S. VP Mike Pence reaffirmed sanctions would stay in place until establishment of roadmap for North Korean denuclearisation, but avoided putting preconditions on holding of second U.S.-North Korea summit, declaring “it is imperative in this next summit that we come away with a plan for identifying all of the weapons … all the development sites, allowing for inspections of those sites and a plan for dismantling the nuclear weapons”. New U.S.-South Korea working group on North Korean issues meeting for first time 20 Nov coordinated UN Security Council waiver allowing joint survey to assess state of rail links between two Koreas; breaking with previous position, U.S. reportedly “expressed full and strong support” for joint survey; according to Sept Pyongyang Declaration, road and rail reconnection work should begin end-Nov/early Dec. U.S. 21 Nov announced planned Foal Eagle military exercise with South Korea early 2019 will be scaled down “to keep it at a level that will not be harmful to diplomacy”. U.S. think-tank CSIS 12 Nov released satellite photos reportedly showing that Pyongyang is maintaining over a dozen missile launch sites.
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.
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.
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.
[Pyongyang is] trying to encourage China to lobby for the sanctions to be lifted and to provide financial help, trade and investment. China’s long-standing policy has been to encourage engagement and try to change North Korean behaviour through trade and development. So as long as North Korea refrains from provocations, we can expect this dialogue to continue.
I think Kim wanted to win the hearts [of people] and draw some sympathy for himself and his regime, as part of an effort to weaken resolve to maintain sanctions and pressure.
[South Korean] President Moon has brought South Korea into the middle of the frame (...) and he again showed Trump the mesmerizing all-consuming media impact that a summit can have — something that’s bound to appeal.”
Kim is already trying to move closer to China, and further uncertainty about the U.S. will likely make him more willing to offer concessions to Beijing. If Kim refrains from further testing and demonstrates good behaviour, while blaming the U.S. for being unreasonable, he could encourage China, South Korea and Russia to lobby for loosening of sanctions, either formally, or through less rigorous implementation and enforcement.
Any successful deal with North Korea will require an extraordinary amount of patience and attention to detail.
Originally published in Politico Magazine
Facing uncertain times in U.S. policy and a pivot to diplomacy from North Korea, leaders of China, Japan and South Korea met in Tokyo on 9 May to downplay historical grievances and show their support for denuclearisation, trade and better relations. But underlying disputes could still resurface.
Symbolism and substance combined to make the 27 April meeting between the North and South Korean presidents a momentous occasion. Much needs to be done to overcome scepticism from past failures, but the concrete timeline the two countries laid out in the Panmunjom Declaration could lead to transformative steps.
After weeks in which other actors have taken notable steps towards defusing fears of war over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program, a China-North Korea summit held 26-27 March in Beijing has reasserted China’s pivotal role in efforts to find a solution to the nuclear crisis.
Following the first inter-Korean summit in ten years, the announcement that President Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a promising sign. Although Pyongyang is unlikely to change its strategic course, the summit provides an opportunity for the U.S. to pair its maximum pressure with diplomacy and coordinate with Asian powers.