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.
South Korea protested Chinese and Russian military activity, U.S. accused China of violating UN sanctions, and Seoul criminalised sending propaganda balloons to North Korea. Four Chinese warplanes and 15 Russian aircraft 22 Dec entered Korea Air Defence Identification Zone (KADIZ) for alleged routine training, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff; South Korea’s military scrambled air force fighters in response, while South Korean MFA same day reportedly lodged protest with China and Russia; Chinese MFA next day responded that Chinese and Russian warplanes did not enter KADIZ. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for North Korea Alex Wong 1 Dec accused China of “flagrant violation” of its obligation to enforce UN sanctions regime, and announced U.S. was offering up to $5mn reward for information on Chinese sanctions evasion; U.S. 8 Dec imposed sanctions on several Chinese companies for allegedly helping Pyongyang export coal; Chinese MFA 23 Dec responded that govt had always implemented sanctions seriously. On final visit to Seoul 8-11 Dec, U.S. Deputy Sec State Stephen Biegun said North Korea had “squandered” opportunities for progress in negotiations over last two years, and called on Pyongyang to agree to “lay out a map for action” leading to denuclearisation. South Korean parliament 15 Dec approved controversial legislation criminalising flying of propaganda leaflets by balloon toward North Korea; minority opposition lawmakers boycotted vote, saying that govt was sacrificing freedom of expression; human rights groups rallied same day at National Assembly to protest bill. South Korean President Moon Jae-in 4 Dec nominated new ministers of interior, health, land and housing, and gender in effort to refresh administration amid backlash over housing policies, rising COVID-19 cases, and scandal involving justice ministry and top prosecutors. UN Security Council 11 Dec discussed human rights abuses in North Korea in closed-door virtual meeting after seven members raised issue, accusing Pyongyang of using COVID-19 pandemic “to crack down further on the human rights of its own people.”
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.