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 31 May, Pyongyang tried – and failed – to send a military reconnaissance satellite into space. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Chris Green explains why it took this action and what can be done to keep regional tensions from rising.
North Korea’s second attempt at satellite launch failed as U.S. and South Korea began summer military drills, which raised tensions and could provoke further missile tests by Pyongyang.
North Korea attempted second satellite launch. After first try to launch military reconnaissance satellite into orbit failed on 31 May, North Korea 24 Aug made second attempt but rocket booster faced issues during third phase, according to state media, and disintegrated before falling into sea. U.S. and South Korea condemned launch as violating UN Security Council resolutions, as Pyongyang vowed to try again in Oct.
U.S. and South Korea began summer military exercises. U.S. and South Korea 21 Aug commenced annual summer drills called Ulchi Freedom Shield. Although arguably essential for military readiness, drills risk fuelling instability on peninsula and triggering North Korea response; South Korean National Intelligence Agency 17 Aug warned that Pyongyang had “provocations” in works to respond to combined drills, which may come in form of missile tests. North Korean military 18 Aug said it dispatched warplanes after U.S. reconnaissance aircraft previous day entered North Korea’s economic zone off eastern coast, denouncing “dangerous military provocation”. Leader Kim Jong-un 29 Aug warned of “danger of a nuclear war” in waters off peninsula. Pyongyang 30 Aug fired two short-range ballistic missiles as part of “tactical nuclear strike drill simulating scorched-earth strikes”.
With North Korea in mind, U.S., South Korea and Japan deepened ties. At historic Camp David summit, leaders of U.S., South Korea and Japan 18 Aug signalled enhanced trilateral relations and coordination against North Korea; three pledged to “share information, align our messaging and coordinate response actions” and embark on joint military exercises as well as “annual Trilateral Indo-Pacific Dialogue”; statement also reaffirmed “commitment to the complete denuclearisation of [North Korea]” and urged north to “abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs”.
Pyongyang began repatriating citizens. North Korea 22 Aug began repatriating its citizens from abroad more than three years after country closed its borders amid COVID-19 pandemic; China and Russia play host to significant cohorts of North Korean workers as well as hundreds of govt personnel.
We are in a situation where North Korea can rely on Russia and China more than has been the case in decades.
Politics is a full-contact sport in South Korea and there is no sign of any sort of balanced politics at the moment.
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.
Pyongyang’s string of missile tests at the turn of 2022 indicates its discontent with how diplomacy has sputtered on the Korean peninsula since the 2019 summit. Fresh overtures may fall short of bringing it back to the table, but they are worth a try.
The latest five-day plenum of North Korea’s ruling party focused on food insecurity, chief among the nation’s challenges. With the pandemic not yet tamed and other uncertainty on the international scene, Pyongyang may continue refraining from major provocations into 2022, but for how long is unclear.
North and South Korea have recently staged displays of military prowess, causing some to worry about an accelerating arms race. But both countries were playing politics. Any uptick in tensions is likely to come after the Beijing Olympics and South Korean elections in March 2022.
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.
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.
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