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.
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.
U.S.-North Korea stalemate continued while UN report alleged Pyongyang advanced its nuclear and missile programs in 2019, breaching sanctions. U.S. media 10 Feb reported President Trump told advisors he did not want summit with Kim Jong-un before Nov U.S. election. Leaked report to UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea, due in March, alleged Pyongyang breached UN sanctions by failing to halt “illicit nuclear and ballistic missile program” in 2019, said DPRK illicitly imported refined petroleum, and exported US$370mn worth of coal aided by Chinese barges; China refused to comment. Study by U.S. company Recorded Future, released 9 Feb, reported Pyongyang increased its internet usage by 300% since 2017, using it “as an instrument for acquiring prohibited knowledge and skills”, enabling development of “nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and cyber operations”. South Korean President Moon reportedly seeking meeting with Trump in March; conservative South Korean lawmakers continued to push Washington against such meeting for fear it could result in unfair elections. U.S.-South Korea tensions continued over stalled negotiations on agreement for sharing cost of maintaining 28,500 U.S. troops on Korean peninsula; South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper discussed cost sharing in meeting in Washington 24 Feb, but negotiators failed to agree on new deal; U.S. military 28 Feb gave its South Korean employees one-month notice about impending unpaid leave of absence; Seoul and Washington 27 Feb postponed spring military exercises “until further notice” after Seoul declared its highest “severe” alert level over coronavirus-19. Coronavirus infection rate mid-Feb recorded daily spikes in South Korea’s Daegu city, with Shincheonji religious group members who had just visited China testing positive for virus; President Moon increasingly accused of putting relations with China above public health by allowing Chinese tourists and students inside country; April general elections could become de facto referendum on Moon over virus. In response to Coronavirus-19 threat, DPRK reportedly closed its border with China late Jan, while news reports said country also hit by virus contrary to official announcements; DPRK early Feb informed foreign embassies and tour operators that foreigners will be temporarily blocked from entering, including diplomats.
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.
[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.
[Ri Son Gwon's] appointment means Kim is putting in place the people he thinks will implement his marching orders.
...North Korea has proven to be very resilient and they can trudge along and work towards their economic and nuclear objectives.
Any US government that is serious about making headway with NK in negotiations should be quietly funding info freedom activities as well.
For the U.S., it would be politically unacceptable and a terrible idea to trade all economic sanctions for the dismantlement of Yongbyon, as Kim seems to have demanded.
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.
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.
Any successful deal with North Korea will require an extraordinary amount of patience and attention to detail.
Originally published in Politico Magazine