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.
Seoul and Pyongyang conducted high-profile missile tests, overshadowing high-level meetings to reignite diplomatic track. In sign of rising inter-Korean arms race and end of quiet period since so-called “Winter Olympic truce” in 2018, North Korea and South Korea tested missiles. Pyongyang 11 and 12 Sept tested intermediate-range cruise missiles, and 15 Sept fired two railway-mobile ballistic missiles from South Pyongan province toward east coast in violation of UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting ballistic missile tests; North Korea 28 Sept fired missile from central north province of Jagang. South Korea 15 Sept tested submarine-launched ballistic missile, becoming first country without nuclear weapons to do so; South Korean President Moon Jae-in same day said missiles would prove “sufficient deterrence to respond to North Korea’s provocations at any time”; Kim Yo-jong, senior North Korean official and sister of leader Kim Jong-un, same day criticised Moon, warning “slander and detraction” could push bilateral relations “toward a complete destruction”. Tests also coincided with meeting between Chinese FM Wang Yi and South Korean FM Chung Eui-yong in South Korea’s capital Seoul, and came one day after meeting between nuclear envoys of U.S., South Korea and Japan in Japanese capital Tokyo to discuss bringing North Korea back to negotiating table; latter meeting urged North Korea to respond to offers of unconditional dialogue. During his UN General Assembly address, Moon Jae-in 21 Sept proposed formal end to 1950-1953 Korean War; North Korea Vice FM Ri Thae Song 24 Sept rejected proposal, saying nothing will change so long as “U.S. hostile policy is not shifted”. Shortly after missile test, North Korea’s UN Envoy Kim Song 28 Sept said govt would respond to offers of talks if U.S. revised “double standards” and hostile policy; Kim Jong-un 30 Sept announced he had requested communication lines with South Korea be restored to “promote peace”.
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.