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 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.
North Korea continued weapons testing as Seoul fired submarine-launched missiles, while incoming South Korean president planned early engagement with U.S. Following launch of intercontinental ballistic missile in March, U.S. 1 April sanctioned five entities it accused of providing support to North Korea’s weapons programs. North Korean state media 17 April reported leader Kim Jong Un observed test launch of new tactical guided weapon. South Korea week of 18 April tested two submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) off east coast of Korean Peninsula, in first such test since Sept 2021. Tests coincided with U.S. envoy to North Korea Sung Kim’s 18 April visit to South Korea’s capital Seoul, where he affirmed U.S. and South Korea would maintain “strongest possible joint deterrent” over Pyongyang’s “escalatory actions”. U.S. and South Korea same day commenced joint military exercises. North Korea 15 April marked “Day of the Sun” birth anniversary of national founder Kim Il Sung, without major military parade. Modest celebrations in Pyongyang were held in contrast to evidence of satellite images and diplomatic reports of preparations for parade, which went ahead 25 April in celebration of 90th anniversary of army foundation; no major new equipment was shown. President-elect Yoon Suk-Yeol’s advisers 4 April commenced visit to U.S. to prepare ground for early summit with U.S. President Biden. Outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un 20-21 April exchanged letters in likely final communication before Moon leaves office in May; Moon’s letter called on Kim to pursue peaceful inter-Korean relations under Yoon’s incoming conservative administration; Yoon transition team next day asserted “peace and prosperity” could only come from denuclearisation. South Korean Defence Minister Suh Wook 1 April said South Korean military had “ability to accurately and quickly hit any target in North Korea”; Kim Yo Jong, sister of Kim Jong Un, 3 April condemned remarks as worsening “inter-Korean relations and military tension”, and 5 April said North Korea opposes war but would use nuclear weapons if attacked, sentiment Kim Jong Un reiterated at parade 25 April.
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.
The [North Korean] missile tests are meant to signal business as usual, and to ensure that others keep North Korea at arm’s length while it copes with a crisis.
North Korea is attempting to pit South Korean advocates of engagement and advocates of containment against each other.
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.
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.
A failed summit in Hanoi between the U.S. and North Korea has resulted in a diplomatic stalemate. In this excerpt from the first update of our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to utilise its neutral position to re-energise the ailing peace process and adopt measures to ease the plight of North Koreans.