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.
North Korea and U.S. tentatively agreed to second summit in Feb, and held significant working-level talks with South Korean involvement to lay groundwork; however, optimism tempered by substantive differences between sides. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in annual televised address 1 Jan pushed to revive dialogue with U.S. and move forward on collaborative projects with South Korea; emphasized potential for progress in talks with both Washington and Seoul as long as existing agreements are implemented. Kim declared that North Korea is not currently building, testing, using, or proliferating nuclear weapons; also warned U.S. against “attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us” (meaning unilateral denuclearisation) and “imposing sanctions and pressure”, and warned against restarting U.S.-ROK joint military exercises or U.S. deploying strategic military assets to South Korea. Kim visited China for fourth time 7-10 Jan, reportedly agreeing with President Xi to “push for continuous new development of China-DPRK relations”. North Korea’s senior representative in talks with U.S., Gen. Kim Yong-chol, arrived in Washington 17 Jan for first round of talks with Sec State Pompeo since Oct. U.S. VP Pence 20 Jan said U.S. will lay out expectations for North Korea to “take concrete steps to begin to make real the denuclearization that Kim Jong-un committed to”. U.S. representative to working-level talks Stephen Biegun met with North Korean delegation in Sweden 19-21 Jan to prepare for summit; South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy took part in trilateral discussions. South Korean conservatives began to express concerns over U.S. aims in North Korea dialogue: that U.S. may be seeking deal with Pyongyang centered on its inter-continental ballistic missile capacity and freezing its nuclear weapons program but accepting its possession of nuclear weapons at existing levels. Deliveries of humanitarian aid to North Korea began after UN granted sanctions waivers to several international NGOs.
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.
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.
[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.”
Any successful deal with North Korea will require an extraordinary amount of patience and attention to detail.
Originally published in Politico Magazine
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