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 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.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang 5-7 July for follow-up discussions after 12 June U.S.-DPRK Singapore summit; described talks as “productive” and “good-faith negotiations”, however North Korea released statement denouncing “unilateral and gangster-like [U.S.] demand for denuclearisation”, saying U.S. stance runs “against spirit” of Singapore summit, while saying that leader Kim Jong-un nevertheless wants to build on “friendly relationship and trust” forged with President Trump in Singapore. U.S. intelligence official 31 July told Reuters about further evidence of increased North Korean ballistic missile production activity, citing images showing trucks activity at Sanumdong factory. U.S. and North Korean officials 16 July met to coordinate repatriation of 50-55 sets of remains of U.S. servicemen killed in Korean War; repatriations took place 27 July. North Korea and South Korea resumed ship-to-ship radio communication links 1 July, ten years after their unilateral suspension by Seoul, which said move represents bid to defuse military tensions and prevent violent confrontation, especially around contested islands in Yellow (West) Sea. Koreas 17 July fully restored military communications line in western part of peninsula, suspended since early 2016 closure of Kaesong Industrial Complex. South Korea 10 July announced suspension of large-scale annual civil defence drills and independent military exercises, saying it plans to develop new drills to prepare for armed attacks “from outside as well as terrorism”; also affirmed intention that U.S. troops should remain in South Korea. South Korean defence ministry 24 July announced plan to gradually reduce troop numbers along demilitarised zone. Month saw further inter-Korean good-will gestures of sports engagements. South Korean workers travelled to Kaesong, North Korea, mid-July to repair facilities to be used for inter-Korean joint liaison office, as agreed during April inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom. China and North Korea 11 July celebrated 57th anniversary of DPRK-China Treaty of Friendship, which compels the two countries to defend one another in event of attack. China and Russia 20 July reportedly blocked U.S. request made at UN Security Council to stop oil transfers to North Korea.
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.
North Korea’s belligerent behaviour is testing the patience of China, its principal backer, but a consequential Chinese policy change, which the U.S. and its allies hope for, is not likely soon.
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.
I don’t think it benefits North Korea to appear be too much of a cheap date. It ill behooves them to have everyone thinking that they are desperate.
Any successful deal with North Korea will require an extraordinary amount of patience and attention to detail.
Originally published in Politico Magazine
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.
President Trump’s 8 March acceptance of an invitation to meet his counterpart Kim Jong-un marks a first in U.S.-North Korea relations and a rare opening for diplomacy. To maximise the chance of a successful summit, all sides will have to prepare a realistic agenda and align their expectations.
The 2018 Winter Olympic Games, together with the 70th anniversary of both North and South Korea, represents an opportunity for diplomacy to help reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.