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.
During Workers’ Party plenum 28-31 Dec, North Korea threatened to resume nuclear and long-range missile tests, blaming continued U.S. “hostile policy”; warned world DPRK will soon possess “new strategic weapon”. Kim Jong-un’s remarks during plenum came ahead of much-anticipated New Year’s Day address, eventually not delivered for first time during Kim’s rule since 2012. Report of plenum revealed Pyongyang planning much harder line in 2020, stressed any chance for diplomacy contingent upon Washington making proposals closer to Pyongyang’s terms. Ahead of announcement, DPRK further intensified pressure for U.S. to make proposal to implement 2018 Singapore Joint Statement ahead of Kim’s unilaterally-imposed end-2019 deadline, warned U.S. to make concessions, up to them what “Christmas gift” they would get; 7 Dec DPRK UN envoy said denuclearisation was off negotiating table. At meeting with ruling party Central Committee senior officials, Kim 22 Dec stressed need for “offensive measures” to bolster DPRK security. U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun 16 Dec called on Pyongyang to return to negotiations, said it is time to do “our jobs”; National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien 29 Dec said U.S. was prepared to take action if Pyongyang made good on “gift” threat. Pyongyang 7, 13 Dec tested engine used for intercontinental ballistic missiles or satellite launch vehicle, hailed first test as enhancing its “strategic position”, second test as bolstering “strategic nuclear deterrent”. Meanwhile, U.S. and South Korea remained at loggerheads over cost-sharing for maintaining U.S. troops on Korean peninsula. Fourth and fifth rounds of negotiations brought no progress, Seoul 18 Dec rejected U.S. demands to enlarge scope of costs in existing agreement for South Korea to cover; new round of talks expected in Jan. Amid fears Trump might withdraw troops, U.S. Senate 14 Dec passed provisions prohibiting reduction of total U.S. troops in South Korea below 28,500 unless defence secretary deems it benign for U.S. and key allies’ national security interests. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe 24 Dec met on sidelines of trilateral summit with China for first time in fifteen months, however no agreement reached.
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.
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 @realDonaldTrump and @SecPompeo presser this afternoon was revealing, & seems to give contours of a path forward. For one thing, Trump emphasized productivity of discussion and positivity of tone on all sides. Doesn't mean it wasn't a setback, but talks will likely continue.
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.
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