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.
North Korea maintained its Dec-announced harder-line plans toward U.S. and denuclearisation in 2020, while South Korea announced plans to resume inter-Korean cooperation. Following DPRK leader Kim Jong-un late-Dec remarks warning of “new strategic weapon”, Pyongyang 21 Jan reiterated stance at UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva with Ju Yong Chol, counsellor at North Korea’s mission to UN, saying that if U.S. does not lift sanctions and persists in “hostile policy”, there will “never be denuclearisation”. DPRK state media 24 Jan confirmed veteran military official Ri Son Gwon – previously in charge of inter-Korean affairs – as new FM. South Korean President Moon 8 Jan announced plans to resume inter-Korean cooperation projects including non-governmental tours to DPRK for South’s civilians, Pyongyang has however yet to accept Seoul’s proposal; South Korean President Moon 14 Jan said inter-Korean cooperation would benefit DPRK-U.S. dialogue and could help ease sanctions. In response, U.S. ambassador to South Korea 16 Jan said plans should be consulted with Washington due to possibility of projects earning foreign currency for North Korea, thereby potentially violating international sanctions; South Korean govt next day called remarks “very inappropriate”, said inter-Korean cooperation is “matter for our government to decide”. U.S.-South Korea tensions also ongoing over stalled negotiations on agreement for sharing of cost of maintaining 28,500 U.S. troops on Korean peninsula, as sixth round of talks took place 14-15 Jan in Washington with no resolution. Seoul insisted agreement sticks to outlines in existing Special Measures Agreement while Washington’s focus remained on expanding scope of agreement and reducing cost for U.S.; Seoul 29 Jan said U.S. Forces Korea began sending 60-day notice of potential leave to nearly 9,000 South Korean employees seen as pressure tactic for Seoul to pay more.
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.
[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 @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 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