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North Korea began attempts to launch satellite as U.S. and South Korea started large-scale drills in run-up to alliance anniversary, raising tensions and risk of miscalculation in June.
Pyongyang attempted satellite launch, U.S. and South Korea began largest ever live drills. Pyongyang 28 May announced plans for launch of military reconnaissance satellite between 31 May and 11 June, one of leader Kim Jong-un’s five military priorities announced in Jan 2021; Japan’s defence ministry warned it would take “destructive measures” if ballistic or other missiles used for launch “land in our territory”. In Pyongyang’s first launch attempt 31 May, rocket crashed off west coast; Pyongyang vowed second attempt. Concurrently, U.S. and South Korean forces 25 May began largest-ever live-fire drills close to North Korean border, commencing period of military exercises extending into June to mark 70th anniversary of alliance. Heightened activity on peninsula in June could lead to misconceptions about each side’s intentions that raises risk of clashes, potentially in form of cross-border skirmishes or between vessels in West Sea.
South Korea and Japan strengthened rapprochement. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese PM Fumio Kishida 7 May held summit in South Korean capital Seoul, reciprocating Yoon’s ground-breaking trip to Japan in mid-March; Kishida remarked that his “heart aches” over treatment of Koreans during colonial period but stopped short of full apology. Pair subsequently advanced military plan in which radar and command-and-control systems used by Japanese and U.S. forces in Japan would be connected to South Korean military and U.S. Forces Korea via U.S. Indo-Pacific Command; goal of linkage is to provide more effective trilateral monitoring of regional military activities and eliminate surveillance blind spots.
South Korea agreed to supply Ukraine, North Korea inched toward reopening China border. Wall Street Journal 25 May reported South Korea had agreed to supply hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds to Ukraine via U.S. After Chinese companies with experience shipping cargo to North Korea by truck were issued so-called “river crossing passes” in April, May witnessed abnormal levels of maintenance of North Korean aircraft used for international routes, potentially signalling Pyongyang’s intent to soon reopen Chinese border to human traffic for first time since pandemic.
North Korea claimed successful solid fuel missile test and hinted at satellite launch, U.S. and South Korea boosted alliance with new accord, and Yellow Sea incident highlighted maritime tensions.
North Korea continued missile tests and indicated impending satellite launch. North Korea 13 April successfully carried out what it said was its first-ever flight test of solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-18, marking potentially significant milestone in regime’s efforts to shield country’s missile forces from pre-emptive attack. Meanwhile, leader Kim Jong Un 18 April reaffirmed Pyongyang’s intention to launch what country calls “military reconnaissance satellite” in coming months, which is one of Kim’s five military priorities announced in Jan 2021. Kim’s remarks implied that satellite launch could be timed to coincide with U.S.-South Korea military drills in June marking 70th anniversary of alliance; statement followed North Korean claim on 5 March that it had developed powerful rocket engine that could guarantee successful satellite launch but satellite imagery suggested that construction work continues at main North Korean rocket launch site Sohae, likely ruling out imminent launch.
U.S. and South Korea boosted alliance with “Washington Declaration”. In first state visit to U.S., President Yoon met President Biden in Washington where pair 26 April unveiled new steps to bolster their alliance as 70th anniversary approaches: sides established new group to consult on nuclear planning akin to NATO mechanism, Biden reaffirmed commitment to extended deterrence and agreed to deploy nuclear submarine to south, and sides pledged to expand training and exercises; Yoon reaffirmed country's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation following comments earlier this year suggesting interest in seeking nuclear weapons. In response to G7 statement on 18 April that called for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear capabilities, North Korean FM Choi Son Hui 21 April insisted on permanence and non-negotiability of country’s nuclear deterrent.
South Korea responded to North Korean maritime incursion. South Korean navy vessel 15 April broadcast warnings and fired ten warning shots as North Korean patrol boat that crossed Northern Limit Line – de facto maritime border that Pyongyang refuses to recognise – near South Korea’s Baengnyeong Island in Yellow Sea, before North’s vessel retreated.
U.S. and South Korea held large-scale military drills as North Korea continued missile tests and hinted at upcoming provocative satellite launch, while Seoul and Tokyo improved relations.
U.S.-South Korea conducted military exercises as Pyongyang launched missiles. U.S. and South Korea 13 March commenced 11-day Freedom Shield military exercise on scale last seen in 2018, ushering in moment of relatively high risk due to competing military activities on peninsula. During drills, North Korea conducted three separate missile launches, including intercontinental ballistic missile (Hwasong-17) on lofted trajectory into East Sea on 16 March; missile did not cross Japanese territory. Other missiles launched included multiple long-range cruise missiles on 22 March.
North Korea hinted at satellite launch and unveiled purported warhead casings. North Korea 5 March indicated that it had developed powerful rocket engine that, it claims, now guarantees that it can launch satellites successfully. Comments may pave way for North Korea to use one of its most powerful ballistic missiles to launch satellite on or around 15 April to mark anniversary of birth of national founder Kim Il-sung; military reconnaissance satellite launch is one of five main military priorities announced by leader Kim Jong-un in Jan 2021 for 2021-2026 period. North Korea 28 March for first time released images of purported tactical nuclear warhead casings, suggesting regime has – or wishes to project – confidence that it can master miniaturisation and produce such weapons at scale.
South Korea and Japan revived partnership. South Korea 6 March announced plan to compensate small number of remaining victims of Japanese wartime forced labour by funding compensation through donations from firms that received investment capital from reparations obtained from Japan in 1960s. While deal effectively resolves longstanding thorn in relations, issue proved extremely contentious among liberals and youth in South Korea. President Yoon Suk-yeol 16-17 March visited Japan for bilateral summit, bringing curtain down on extended period of bilateral friction in recent years; Japanese PM Kishida called it “major step towards normalizing relations”.
North Korea continued spate of provocative missile launches amid U.S.-South Korea drills, raising prospect of escalation around allied military exercises in March.
North Korea elevated threats amid frequent missile tests. Pyongyang seized upon perceived threats posed by U.S. and South Korea as pretext for planned military testing. Notably, North Korea 18 Feb launched Hwaseong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile on lofted trajectory, which reached almost 6000km altitude before falling into East Sea/Sea of Japan. South Korea and U.S. 19 Feb conducted joint drills involving B1-B strategic bombers. North Korea 20 Feb launched two “tactical nuclear” 600mm rockets at targets 395km and 337km away; U.S. and ten other states same day raised missile launch two days prior at UN Security Council, though no agreement was reached on Council response. After South Korean, U.S. and Japanese Aegis-equipped destroyers 22 Feb participated in missile defence drill off peninsula’s eastern coast, Pyongyang next day fired four long-range cruise missiles on 2000km trajectories. U.S. 23 Feb said it held tabletop drill with Seoul simulating North Korea using nuclear weapon, at which North Korea expressed deep concern. North Korea 24 Feb indicated further actions to come, underscoring likelihood of period of military escalation in coming weeks, potentially around U.S.-South Korea 11-day spring military exercise that commences mid-March.
North held military parade to mark anniversary. Pyongyang 8 Feb held late-night military parade to mark founding of country’s military. Though largely aimed at domestic audiences, event allowed military to display numerous intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Row erupted over nuclear contamination claims. South Korea 24 Feb offered to test for nuclear contamination almost one thousand North Korean defector-migrants from regions near North Korea’s only nuclear test facility at Punggye-ri in remote north east; offer followed 21 Feb report by Seoul-based NGO Transitional Justice Working Group that claimed many thousands of North Koreans from towns and villages near nuclear test site may have been exposed to contaminated water.
North Korea vowed further nuclear and missile development, while South Korea President Yoon Suk-yeol stirred concern with nuclear armament comments.
North Korea ended 2022 party plenum with promise of nuclear expansion. During speech on 31 Dec at culmination of annual review meeting of ruling Workers’ Party held 26-31 Dec, leader Kim Jong-un vowed to “exponentially increase” nuclear weapons production in 2023 in response to threat posed by U.S. and South Korea, specifically citing heightened trilateral coordination among U.S., Seoul and Japan; Kim also stated country was developing “another new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system” with “rapid nuclear counterattack ability” and highlighted late June (Korean War anniversary) and Sept (75th anniversary of state foundation) as important anniversaries, indicating possible military provocations around those periods.
President Yoon sparked controversy with comments on nuclearisation. In off-the-cuff remarks to reporters, Yoon 11 Jan said South Korea could consider building nuclear weapons if nuclear threat from North Korea grows, explaining “we can have our own nuclear weapons pretty quickly given our scientific and technological capabilities.” Government officials subsequently noted it was not official govt policy; nevertheless, comments sparked intense speculation at home and abroad about whether South Korea may one day pursue nuclear weapons, with opinion polling showing support for nuclearisation now running above 70%.
UN said north and south violated armistice agreement with drones. Following special investigation, UN Command 26 Jan said both North and South Korean forces violated 1953 armistice ending Korean War by sending drones across border into other’s airspace late Dec; verdict followed incident in which five North Korean drones 26 Dec entered south, prompting south to deploy drone in tit-for-tat move.
North Korea conducted space rocket launch and missile tests, vowing military satellite launch in April 2023, while its bellicose rhetoric hinted at further provocations to come.
Pyongyang launched space rocket and appeared to set April 2023 for satellite launch. Pyongyang 18 Dec launched what it claimed was carrier rocket for its space program and released grainy photos of South Korean capital Seoul and port city Incheon purportedly taken at 500km altitude; state media next day noted that country was now making “preparations for military reconnaissance satellite No. 1 by April 2023”. Military reconnaissance satellite launch is one of five main military priorities announced by leader Kim Jong-un in Jan 2021 for 2021-2026 period.
North Korea conducted ballistic missile tests, rejected South Korea’s criticism. Pyongyang 15 Dec conducted its first ever solid-fuel missile engine test at Seohae Satellite Launch Station, marking one giant step closer to obtaining solid-fuel inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong 20 Dec rejected South Korean comments, which asserted that technology used was same in ICBMs and therefore banned by UN Security Council resolutions; Kim also threatened to conduct down-range ICBM test, saying that Seoul “will immediately recognize [North Korea’s capability if] we launch an ICBM [at a normal angle]”. Combined with hints that it may launch military reconnaissance satellite in April, comments underscore risk of further escalatory actions in coming months, including possible seventh nuclear test. North Korea 23 and 31 Dec fired short-range ballistic missiles and 26 Dec deployed five drones that entered south. Meanwhile, Pyongyang 23 Dec denied U.S. assessment that it delivered arms to Russia for use by private military company Wagner Group in Ukraine.
U.S. continued military drills, Japan unveiled new security strategy. U.S. 20 Dec flew nuclear-capable bombers and stealth fighter jets during joint military drills with South Korean jets in remote corner of south. Japan 16 Dec released first national security strategy in nine years, pledging focus on three areas related to Korean Peninsula: North Korea’s state-sponsored abductions of Japanese citizens in 1970s and 80s, North Korean nuclear issue, and Pyongyang’s missile programs.
North Korea test fired dozens of missiles, including its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and admonished U.S. and South Korea in harsh criticism.
Pyongyang continued intense missile testing and military provocations. Following multiple launches throughout Oct, Pyongyang 2-3 Nov fired approximately 26 missiles, including likely long-range cruise missile and ICBM, latter of which landed 200km west of northerly Japanese island of Hokkaido; another missile landed south of Northern Limit Line (de facto inter-Korean maritime border) just 40km from east coast of South Korean town of Sokcho. Amid barrage, North Korea 2 Nov fired approximately 100 artillery shells in vicinity of South Korea’s maritime buffer zone. Further launches of short-range missiles followed 9 and 17 Nov; North 18 Nov fired “Hwasong-17”, which appears to mark first successful launch of largest ICBM in its arsenal following launch failure in March. North characterised early Nov launches as response to recent U.S.-South Korean military drills, but seem to form part of sustained strategy that is raising peninsula tensions.
Concerns persisted over potential seventh nuclear test. Satellite imagery taken on or around 7 Nov published by U.S. think-tank CSIS showed no activity at third of four tunnels at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site; analysts and observers believe Pyongyang is technically ready to conduct seventh nuclear test – and first since 2017 – at site with minimal further preparations. South Korean President Yoon 28 Nov warned response to seventh test would “will be something that has not been seen before”.
Pyongyang slammed U.S. and South Korea. Exploiting opportunity offered by inconclusive UN Security Council meeting regarding North Korea’s missile launches, Sister of Kim Jong-un, Kim Yo-jong, 22 Nov called U.S. “scared barking dog” and alleged that Washington is feeling frustrated by council’s inability to achieve unanimity due to geopolitical tensions with China and Russia; Kim warned North Korea sees “grave political provocations attempting to drive the Korean Peninsula situation into a new phase of crisis”. Kim 24 Nov asserted “[President] Yoon Suk-yeol and his idiots continue to create a dangerous situation”.
North Korea continued to ratchet up tensions with missile flight over Japan, U.S. and South Korea signalled close cooperation, and North and South traded warning shots at sea.
North Korea conducted provocative launch over Japan. North Korea 4 Oct launched intermediate range ballistic missile over Japan, in most serious provocation since first quarter of 2022 and first such flight over Japan since 2017; missile flew some 4,500km, well within range of U.S. territory of Guam. North Korea 16-23 Oct paused further missile testing, lasting for duration of Chinese Communist Party Congress; prior to pause, Pyongyang launched 15 missiles 21 Sept-14 Oct. North resumed missile testing schedule post-Congress, with two short-range ballistic missiles fired 28 Oct. International Atomic Energy Agency chief 27 Oct said “Everybody is holding its breath” over possible seventh nuclear test as U.S., South Korea and Japan warned of “unparalleled response”; probability of nuclear test likely to rise in lead up to Dec, which will see anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death 17 Dec.
U.S. and South Korea demonstrated strong, united front. U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim 3 Oct met South Korean counterpart Noh Kyu-duk in U.S. capital Washington, pledging to pursue strong measures against any North Korean testing, including new UN Security Council resolution and U.S. treasury sanctions. In sign of heightened pace of joint military exercises, South Korea and U.S. held several small drills in South Korea, including on border with North, following late August Ulchi Freedom Shield exercises; South Korean navy, army, air force, and coast guard 24-27 Oct participated with U.S. in two-week Hoguk Exercises beginning 17 Oct; U.S. and South Korea 31 Oct began large-scale air drills.
North and South Korean vessels traded shots at sea border. In incident underscoring risk of future maritime escalation, North and South Korea 23 Oct traded warning shots after what appeared to be North Korean merchant vessel crossed disputed maritime border Northern Limit Line (NLL) 27km northwest of South Korea’s Baengyeong Island. North Korea denied involvement, issuing counterclaim that South Korean navy sent two ships to “intrude” some 5km over NLL; South acknowledged crossing, said it was necessitated by pursuit of North Korean vessel.
North Korea fired ballistic missiles as U.S. and South Korea held military drills, Seoul proposed humanitarian talks with north, and Pyongyang outlined use of nuclear arsenal.As U.S.-South Korea military drills ended, Pyongyang launched spate of ballistic missiles. U.S. and South Korea 1 Sept concluded joint Ulchi Freedom Shield summer exercises, largest for four years; exercises included eleven different types of field exercise, including joint aircraft carrier strike drills and amphibious landings. North Korea did not respond, but 24 Sept launched first ballistic missile; launch came after South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol 21 Sept delivered UN General Assembly speech without mentioning North Korea for first time ever, and ahead of U.S.-South Korea joint naval exercises 26-29 Sept and visit by U.S. VP Kamala Harris to South Korean capital Seoul and inter-Korean border. Pyongyang 28-29 Sept launched additional missiles, including after VP Harris departed. South Korea, U.S. and Japan 30 Sept held anti-submarine exercises for first time in five years.South Korea sought progress with north on reunions of separated families. Seoul 8 Sept requested talks with North Korea on restarting unions of families separated by Korean War, in first attempt by new administration to make progress on longstanding humanitarian issue; Pyongyang did not respond to outreach, reaffirming disdain for new conservative administration.North Korea promulgated new law governing nuclear use. Ahead of country’s founding day on 9 Sept, North Korea 8 Sept promulgated new law specifying conditions for use of nuclear arsenal. Law stipulates North will not attack non-nuclear states except if allied with nuclear states, nuclear weapons can be deployed if “attack by hostile forces on the state leadership…was launched or drew near”, and use aimed at preventing “expansion and protraction of a war”. In speech accompanying new law, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un same day declared “legislating nuclear weapons policy is to draw an irretrievable line so that there can be no bargaining over our nuclear weapons”. While symbolic, law appears to be timed to raise regional military stakes in absence of highly provocative actions ahead of China’s ruling party congress beginning on 16 Oct.
U.S. and North Korea traded barbs over latter’s nuclear weapons program, while Pyongyang rejected Seoul’s new denuclearisation initiative amid U.S.-South Korea military drills. U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken 1 Aug criticised North Korea’s expansion of “unlawful nuclear programme” and accused Pyongyang of preparing seventh nuclear test; Pyongyang 3 Aug responded that it would “never tolerate” U.S. criticism on weapons tests and called Washington “kingpin of nuclear proliferation”. Visiting South Korea, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 4 Aug pledged to support North Korea’s denuclearisation based on “extended deterrence”; North Korean state media 6 Aug denounced Pelosi as “worst destroyer of international peace and stability”. UN concluded in confidential report leaked 4 Aug that North Korea made preparations for nuclear test during first six months of 2022. In first elaboration of North Korea policy since March election, South Korean President Yoon 15 Aug asserted that denuclearisation was prerequisite for peace in North East Asia and proposed “audacious initiative” to provide economic aid and development in exchange for Pyongyang’s credible steps toward denuclearisation. Kim Yo Jong – sister to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – 18 Aug dismissed proposal as “nonsense”, saying denuclearisation “cannot be bartered” for economic cooperation and proposal was rehash of policies of conservative govt in power 2008-2013. Remarks came after South Korea, U.S. and Japan 8-14 Aug held joint missile warning and tracking exercises. North 17 Aug fired two cruise missiles from Onchon (west coast). Yoon same day said high-level talks “should not be a political show” but lead to “substantive peace”. South Korea and U.S. 22 Aug commenced largest joint exercise in years. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un 11 Aug declared end to COVID-19 outbreak, which many local traders interpreted as sign that cross-border trade with China could soon restart. South Korean FM Park Jin and Chinese FM Wang Yi 9 Aug pledged to pursue “two-plus-two” talks and increase high-level communication on range of issues; dispute over U.S.-supplied missile defence system deployed in south 11 Aug resurfaced, however, as Beijing sought limits on its deployment. South Korean prosecutors 19 Aug raided presidential archive as part of investigation into former Moon administration’s repatriation of two North Korean fishermen in 2019.
Military cooperation between South Korea, U.S. and Japan sparked opposition from China and North Korea, as tensions could rise further ahead of major U.S.-South Korea drills next month. South Korea participated in U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific military exercise running 29 June-4 Aug in signal of improving relations and military alliance coordination. Chinese state media 2 July responded angrily; domestic experts criticised deployment as “dangerous signal” of South Korean President Yoon administration’s deviation from “neutral line” balancing Beijing and Washington relations, and portent of U.S., South Korean and Japanese trilateral military alliance. North Korea 3 July similarly criticised U.S., South Korea and Japan’s 29 June agreement to reinforce “extended deterrence” as fostering U.S. “military supremacy” over Asia-Pacific. U.S. F-35A stealth fighter jets 5 July arrived in South Korea for ten-day deployment in first publicly announced visit since 2017. Yoon next day ordered military to “promptly and sternly” retaliate against any provocation from North. South Korean military 10 July reported trajectories of shots fired by North Korea, possibly from multiple rocket launches. U.S. and South Korea will hold major summertime military drills late Aug for first time in four years, potentially adding fresh impetus for Pyongyang to conduct seventh nuclear test. After North Korea 13 July recognised self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian ambassador to North Korea 18 July told media North Korean labourers may soon be sent to Ukraine’s Donbas region for rebuilding of “social, infrastructure, and industrial facilities”; comments underscore increased difficulty in maintaining existing UN sanctions regime on North Korea amid tensions between West and Russia. State media 18 July said country is en route to “finally defuse” crisis over COVID-19 outbreak. Meanwhile, South Korean FM Park Jin 18 July met Japanese FM Yoshimasa Hayashi to discuss reconciliation and disputes, including payments for forced labour stemming from 1910-1945 Japanese occupation of Korea. South Korea’s national intelligence service 6 July filed criminal complaints against two former chiefs on charges of abuse of power as well as for allegedly destroying intelligence documents.
North Korea (DPRK) tested ballistic missiles as U.S. again warned of potentially imminent DPRK nuclear test; Washington and Seoul signalled resolve with their own missile launches and drills. North Korea 5 June fired eight short-range ballistic missiles off east coast in largest-scale single test event to date. In response, South Korea and U.S. next day fired eight surface-to-surface missiles off east coast to demonstrate “capability and readiness to carry out precision strikes”; U.S. and South Korea 8 June conducted joint military drill involving 20 aircraft. U.S. continued warnings it ramped up in May of Pyongyang’s seventh nuclear test; U.S. Special Representative Sung Kim 6 June cautioned test could be “at any time”. International Atomic Energy Agency next day reported North Korean construction work expanding key facilities at main nuclear site in Yongbyon. U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies 16 June said North Korea appeared to be expanding work at Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility ready for possible nuclear test. South Korea 21 June successfully launched first domestically-designed rocket Nuri-ho II following failed launch in Oct 2021; rocket ostensibly intended to facilitate low-cost commercial satellite launches but is perceived by North Korea as overt military threat. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un 22 June convened meeting of senior military officials to discuss national defence policies where he reiterated commitment to continuing arms build-up. During tripartite meeting, South Korean Vice FM Cho Hyun-dong, U.S. Deputy Sec State Wendy Sherman and Japanese Vice FM Takeo Mori 8 June called on North Korea to cease actions that “escalate tensions” following “serious, unlawful” missile tests in May, stressing that “a path to serious and sustained dialogue remains open”. Chinese UN envoy Zhang Jun 9 June said “denuclearisation is one of the key goals of China” and warned not to “prejudge” Chinese response in event of seventh nuclear test; statement follows China’s 26 May veto alongside Russia of U.S.-led UN Security Council resolution authorising additional sanctions against North Korea. South Korean President Yoon 17 June called for coordinated UN Security Council response to Pyongyang’s provocations.
Pyongyang acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak for first time, and continued missile testing as concerns rose over possible nuclear test in coming weeks. U.S. and South Korea issued warnings through month of potential seventh North Korean nuclear test. U.S. State Dept 6 May warned satellite imagery showed nuclear test preparations underway, possibly linked to U.S. President Biden 20-22 May Seoul visit for first meeting with South Korean President Yoon, who was inaugurated 10 May. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan 19 May said intelligence presents “genuine possibility” of “long-range missile test or a nuclear test or frankly both”. Seoul 13 May said North Korea appeared ready for first nuclear test, while saying ICBM test appeared “imminent”; risk remained by end of month of nuclear test taking place within next two weeks. Meanwhile, North Korea 12 May acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak for first time amid lockdowns in multiple cities, most importantly in capital Pyongyang; state media set death toll at 65 as of 20 May, with over 2.2mn cases; decision to publicly acknowledge outbreak may indicate first major COVID-19 crisis in Pyongyang or desire to solicit Chinese assistance. U.S. 12 May said it had no plans to share vaccines but would support “provision of critical humanitarian aid”; South Korea next day announced intention to provide vaccines. As of 27 May, North Korea had not responded to aid offers; China 16 May sent at least three planeloads of protective gear and medication. North Korea also continued controversial missile activity. South Korea 4 May reported North Korean ballistic missile launch. North Korea 7 May tested alleged submarine-launched ballistic missile; in response, Japan condemned launch as “absolutely unacceptable”. North Korea 12 May fired three missiles off east coast. As U.S. President Biden concluded five-day trip in region, North Korea 25 May launched three missiles, including presumed Hwasong-17 inter-continental ballistic missile; U.S. and South Korea same day replied by launching two missiles. On diplomatic front, China’s Korean Affairs envoy 1 May expressed disapproval of “actions by any party that could escalate tension.” U.S. 3 May signalled desire to push UN Security Council vote on boosting sanctions against North Korea and 11 May warned “silence and restraint have not worked”. U.S. brought forward new UN Security Council resolution; Russia and China 27 May however vetoed it.
North Korea continued weapons testing as Seoul fired submarine-launched missiles, while incoming South Korean president planned early engagement with U.S. Following launch of intercontinental ballistic missile in March, U.S. 1 April sanctioned five entities it accused of providing support to North Korea’s weapons programs. North Korean state media 17 April reported leader Kim Jong Un observed test launch of new tactical guided weapon. South Korea week of 18 April tested two submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) off east coast of Korean Peninsula, in first such test since Sept 2021. Tests coincided with U.S. envoy to North Korea Sung Kim’s 18 April visit to South Korea’s capital Seoul, where he affirmed U.S. and South Korea would maintain “strongest possible joint deterrent” over Pyongyang’s “escalatory actions”. U.S. and South Korea same day commenced joint military exercises. North Korea 15 April marked “Day of the Sun” birth anniversary of national founder Kim Il Sung, without major military parade. Modest celebrations in Pyongyang were held in contrast to evidence of satellite images and diplomatic reports of preparations for parade, which went ahead 25 April in celebration of 90th anniversary of army foundation; no major new equipment was shown. President-elect Yoon Suk-Yeol’s advisers 4 April commenced visit to U.S. to prepare ground for early summit with U.S. President Biden. Outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un 20-21 April exchanged letters in likely final communication before Moon leaves office in May; Moon’s letter called on Kim to pursue peaceful inter-Korean relations under Yoon’s incoming conservative administration; Yoon transition team next day asserted “peace and prosperity” could only come from denuclearisation. South Korean Defence Minister Suh Wook 1 April said South Korean military had “ability to accurately and quickly hit any target in North Korea”; Kim Yo Jong, sister of Kim Jong Un, 3 April condemned remarks as worsening “inter-Korean relations and military tension”, and 5 April said North Korea opposes war but would use nuclear weapons if attacked, sentiment Kim Jong Un reiterated at parade 25 April.
North Korea tested components of military reconnaissance satellite and decisively ended self-imposed ban on long-range missile testing, raising prospect of provocative space launch in April. March saw pivot toward North Korean activities aligned with country’s ambition to launch military-reconnaissance satellite. Following similar test late Feb, North Korea 5 March launched components of satellite to operational altitudes. Leader Kim Jong-un 10 March visited National Aerospace Development Administration and next day Sohae Satellite Launch Centre, signalling focus on provocative space launch that may take place on or around 15 April – 110th birth anniversary of state founder Kim Il-sung. Experts debated whether Pyongyang is focussed on satellite deployment or, as U.S. 10 March asserted, developing “new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) system” that launches have utilised; Washington 12 March announced fresh sanctions in response to tests. Pyongyang then moved to undisguised ICBM launches; state 16 March launched missile that exploded shortly after take-off near Sunan international airport; South Korean military 20 March said North Korea same day fired short-range multiple rocket launcher. Pyongyang 24 March successfully launched older type of ICBM, which decisively ended self-imposed moratorium in place since April 2018. Meanwhile, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies 7 March published report suggesting “very early signs of activity” at North Korea’s sole nuclear test site in Punggye-ri (north east), which was ostensibly “destroyed” in 2018 as part of diplomatic process with U.S. and South Korea. South Korean military intelligence 27 March claimed that restoration work at Punggye-ri has been accelerated, raising possibility of nuclear test sooner than anticipated. In South Korea, former prosecutor and conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol 9 March won general election. In early moves likely perceived negatively in Pyongyang, President-elect Yoon’s transition team altered name of “foreign, security and unification” by omitting “unification”, signalling reduced focus on inter-Korean engagement and reflecting scepticism within now-ruling party toward utility of Ministry of Unification. Yoon 20 March decided to move presidential office to vicinity of Ministry of National Defence in Yongsan district, capital Seoul.
North Korea conducted late month missile test following weeks-long hiatus amid international concerns about resumption of testing. In wake of late Jan barrage of missile tests, North Korea saw pause in missile testing for most of month. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un 4 Feb issued congratulations to Chinese President Xi for hosting Winter Olympics 4-20 Feb, in gesture signalling confirmation of missile testing hiatus for duration of games likely aimed at limiting friction with Beijing; 22 Feb congratulated Xi on completion of games, vowed to strengthen cooperation with Beijing to “frustrate” threats from U.S. and its allies. U.S. Defence Secretary 9 Feb met with South Korean and Japanese counterparts to discuss North Korean missile tests, calling them “destabilizing to regional security” and “direct and serious threat”. South Korean President Moon in 10 Feb interview said resumption of nuclear or long-range missile testing would cause Korean Peninsula to “instantly fall back into the state of crisis we faced five years ago” and called for “persistent dialogue”; Moon’s comments come ahead of South Korea’s March elections that could coincide with resumption of North Korean testing. North Korea 27 Feb conducted missile test, prompting condemnation from U.S. and other states. Anniversary of birth of Kim Jong-il – father of Kim Jong-un – 16 Feb passed without notable events in North Korean capital Pyongyang despite rumoured planned military parade, with main event taking place in border city of Samjiyeon, birthplace of Kim according to official state history; move appeared to have been made to limit show of state power and associated risks of regional tensions. Supreme People’s Assembly 8 Feb pledged to develop economy in face of “persevering struggle” against both international sanctions and COVID-19 pandemic.
Peninsula North Korea conducted slew of missile tests, prompting U.S. to impose more sanctions, while early signs emerged of potential trade resumption with China. North Korea 1 Jan published report on Kim Jong-un’s speech to regular plenum of Korean Workers’ Party held 27-31 Dec; report expressed “heavy yet responsible agony for 2022”. Pyongyang thereafter conducted six missile tests during month, marking notable uptick in frequency compared to just eight tests of all kinds in 2021. Pyongyang claimed to have fired hypersonic weapons 5 and 11 Jan from heavily militarised Jangang province, short-range ballistic missiles 14 Jan from train mount and 17 and 27 Jan from static launchers, and cruise missiles on 25 Jan; tests appear to signal Pyongyang’s resumed desire to shake up political situation in East Asia after U.S attention focused elsewhere. In response to first two tests, U.S. 12 Jan imposed unilateral sanctions on several individuals linked to weapons programs; move reportedly chief cause of North Korean politburo’s 20 Jan decision to “promptly examine the issue of restarting all temporarily-suspended activities”, likely referring to resumption of inter-continental ballistic missile launches it last conducted in 2017, also accused U.S. of joint military exercises and “shipping…[of] nuclear strategic weapons” into surrounding region. Former U.S. Forces Korea head Gen Robert Abrams 20 Jan responded that U.S. “has not had a Carrier Strike Group, a Strategic Bomber, or 5th Gen fighter in [South Korean] waters or air space since May 2018”. UN Security Council 10, 20 Jan convened to discuss testing, with Russia and China making clear opposition to further sanctions. Trains crossed China-North Korea border in first indication of tentative reopening for trade; notably, three freight trains 17, 18, 19 Jan crossed border between Sinuiju city, North Korea, and Dandong city, China.
North Korea began winter with administration closure and commemorated ten-year anniversary of former leader Kim Jong-il’s death amid economic uncertainty. North Korean govt 1 Dec closed administration for winter to finalise state accounts and review progress in key economic sectors. Leader Kim Jong-un same day said country needed to prepare for “very giant struggle” to boost economy in 2022 amid ongoing 22-month border closure due to COVID-19. Workers at Hyesan Youth Copper Mine, among country’s largest industrial enterprises, as of 12 Dec reportedly had not received personal rations or meals since April, indicating impact of extended border closure. North Korea 17 Dec held events to commemorate tenth anniversary of previous leader Kim Jong-il’s death, with main event held in front of mausoleum of Kim and his father, national founder Kim Il-sung, in capital Pyongyang; smaller rallies were held nationwide and public markets closed for day. Seoul authorities 21 Dec said North Korean winter military exercises were reportedly under way, indicating monitoring of drills in tandem with U.S.. Kim Jong-un 23 Dec said North Korea-China relationship had entered “fresh heyday” and noted departure of outgoing Chinese ambassador. U.S. 10 Dec imposed first new sanctions on North Korea under Biden administration, blacklisting Central Public Prosecutor’s Office and Minister of People’s Armed Forces Ri Yong-gil. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, speaking at 13 Dec signing of defence contract with Australia, said South Korea, North Korea, China and U.S. had agreed “in principle” to potential peace treaty to formally end Korean War, that North Korea however was holding up progress by demanding end to U.S. hostilities first; also said South Korea wouldn’t join boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics, highlighting China’s role in resolving nuclear standoff with North Korea. South Korean ruling party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung 30 Dec called acquisition of nuclear subs “absolutely necessary”, vowed to “convince the United States” to assist on diplomatic and technological fronts.
South Korean opposition selected presidential candidate advocating hawkish stance on North Korea, while signs emerged of potential reopening of North Korea-China border. In South Korean capital Seoul, main opposition People’s Power Party 5 Nov selected former Chief Prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl as candidate for March 2022 presidential election; observers noted that should Yoon win majority, his administration would likely strike conservative policy line toward North Korea, seek verifiable progress toward denuclearisation as prerequisite for resuming economic cooperation and oppose end-of-war declaration currently pursued by incumbent Moon Jae-in administration. Meanwhile, former U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) commander Gen Robert Abrams 17 Nov warned end-of-war declaration could lead to calls to end U.S./UN role on peninsula. More broadly, inter-Korean relations remained stable with South Korea’s ministry of unification repeating during month that cross-border military hotlines are operating normally; hotlines were re-established in Oct following disconnection earlier in year. Chinese customs figures published early Nov indicated North Korea imported $4.5mn in soaps, solvents and disinfectants from China during Oct despite overall trade decrease, likely to support sterilisation efforts in bid to restart overland trade following two-year COVID-19 border closure. Import data comes amid evidence that China 1 Nov tested train at main overland goods transit point between China’s Dandong city and North Korea’s Sinuiju city, where old airport has been repurposed as one of four disinfection facilities (others are at Nampo port, Chongjin port and border crossing with Russia); North Korean economic delegation also visited Dandong 8 Nov.
North Korea tested ballistic missile and South Korea launched first domestically-designed rocket, while Washington and Seoul mulled declaration to end Korean war. North Korea 18 Oct tested submarine-launched ballistic missile near major east coast naval base of Sinpo, a day before trilateral meeting between U.S., South Korea and Japan on North Korean denuclearisation. Japanese PM Kishida 19 Oct called launch “very regrettable”, while U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim called on Pyongyang to “refrain from further provocations and engage in sustained and substantive dialogue”. South Korea 21 Oct launched 200-ton liquid-fuelled ‘Nuri’ rocket into space in first launch of entirely indigenous design; although launch was successful, rocket failed to place payload in intended orbit. President Moon same day commented “we are now able to freely develop various space launch vehicles” and heralded advent of “Korea space age”; launch follows U.S. decision in May to drop restrictions on South Korea’s missile ranges. Head of North Korean Institute for National Unification 19 Oct said South Korean President Moon’s Sept proposal for declaration ending Korean War would be premature without resolving fundamental issues, such as U.S. troops on peninsula. Reports 20 Oct surfaced, however, that U.S. and South Korea were reportedly in discussions over text of such declaration; U.S. Special Representative Kim and South Korean counterpart Noh Kyu-duk 24 Oct reaffirmed growing focus on declaration. Meanwhile, Chinese customs data released 13 Oct showed China-North Korea cross-border trade more than doubled from Aug-Sept 2021, reaching highest value in over a year in tentative sign of recovery of cross-border trade dramatically reduced during COVID-19 pandemic. China’s UN Security Council representative 22 Oct renewed call for sanctions on North Korea to be eased.
Seoul and Pyongyang conducted high-profile missile tests, overshadowing high-level meetings to reignite diplomatic track. In sign of rising inter-Korean arms race and end of quiet period since so-called “Winter Olympic truce” in 2018, North Korea and South Korea tested missiles. Pyongyang 11 and 12 Sept tested intermediate-range cruise missiles, and 15 Sept fired two railway-mobile ballistic missiles from South Pyongan province toward east coast in violation of UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting ballistic missile tests; North Korea 28 Sept fired missile from central north province of Jagang. South Korea 15 Sept tested submarine-launched ballistic missile, becoming first country without nuclear weapons to do so; South Korean President Moon Jae-in same day said missiles would prove “sufficient deterrence to respond to North Korea’s provocations at any time”; Kim Yo-jong, senior North Korean official and sister of leader Kim Jong-un, same day criticised Moon, warning “slander and detraction” could push bilateral relations “toward a complete destruction”. Tests also coincided with meeting between Chinese FM Wang Yi and South Korean FM Chung Eui-yong in South Korea’s capital Seoul, and came one day after meeting between nuclear envoys of U.S., South Korea and Japan in Japanese capital Tokyo to discuss bringing North Korea back to negotiating table; latter meeting urged North Korea to respond to offers of unconditional dialogue. During his UN General Assembly address, Moon Jae-in 21 Sept proposed formal end to 1950-1953 Korean War; North Korea Vice FM Ri Thae Song 24 Sept rejected proposal, saying nothing will change so long as “U.S. hostile policy is not shifted”. Shortly after missile test, North Korea’s UN Envoy Kim Song 28 Sept said govt would respond to offers of talks if U.S. revised “double standards” and hostile policy; Kim Jong-un 30 Sept announced he had requested communication lines with South Korea be restored to “promote peace”.
Pyongyang severed inter-Korean hotline reestablished late July amid tensions surrounding annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. South Korea 8 Aug confirmed it would hold annual joint military exercises with U.S. on 10-26 Aug; Kim Yo-jong, senior North Korean official and sister of leader Kim Jong-un, 10 Aug pressured South Korea by warning that conducting the joint exercises would damage resolve of two Koreas to rebuild relations. Notwithstanding warnings, U.S. and South Korea 10 Aug began joint military exercises in limited form and with no ground troop activities. In protest at the exercises, North Korea same day ceased answering daily pro forma calls via cross-border hotlines between two Koreas that were restored late July and described by two Koreas as indicating a shared wish to have better ties. Head of North Korean ruling party’s United Front Department Kim Yong-chol 11 Aug vowed to make South Korea and U.S. “pay dearly” for their military activities, and said that they had squandered opportunity for improved inter-Korean relations. U.S. and South Korea militaries 16-23 Aug held pre-scheduled Larger Combined Command Post Training. U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim 21 Aug arrived in South Korean capital Seoul for four-day trip, and 23 Aug met with South Korean counterpart, Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Noh Kyu-duk; following meeting, Kim said U.S. “does not have hostile intent toward” North Korea. International Atomic Energy Agency 27 Aug reported that North Korea appeared to have restarted nuclear reactor at Yongbyon site; U.S. senior official 30 Aug said report reflects urgent need for dialogue and confirmed U.S. is seeking to address issue with Pyongyang.
Pyongyang and Beijing reaffirmed their mutual ties while U.S. confirmed plans to hold joint military exercises with South Korea in August. After Pyongyang and Beijing late June arranged series of events to commemorate past reciprocal summits in 2018 and 2019, including joint symposium hosted by Chinese Communist Party in Chinese capital Beijing, Chinese President Xi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un 11 July exchanged letters to commemorate and reaffirm 60th anniversary of their Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance. U.S. 15 July confirmed that it would hold joint military exercises with South Korea in August without yet specifying scale; in response, North Korean propaganda website Uriminzokkiri 20 July called exercises “scheme to invade the North” that violates 2000 and 2018 inter-Korean agreements. Two Koreas 27 July announced restoration of cross-border hotlines, indicating possible return to dialogue if/when South Korea-U.S. military drills pass uneventfully.
North Korea (DPRK) acknowledged severity of food insecurity amid COVID-19 pandemic, while U.S. reaffirmed readiness to continue dialogue. At ruling Korean Workers’ Party plenum 15-18 June, DPRK officials agreed policy to distribute food to general population as matter of urgency, likely indicating that long-running border closure is doing real harm to livelihoods. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un 29 June accused senior officials of having “caused a grave incident that has caused a great risk to people and the nation’s safety”. At plenum, during speech on “major changes taking place on the international political arena”, Kim Jong-un 17 June stated that North Korea should be ready for both “dialogue and confrontation” with U.S. administration; U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan 20 June called Kim Jong-un’s comments “interesting signal”. Following U.S.-South Korea summit in U.S. capital Washington 21 May, newly appointed U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim 19-23 June visited South Korean capital Seoul; 21 June met with South Korean and Japanese counterparts and took opportunity to reiterate Washington’s openness to unconditional talks with Pyongyang, saying that U.S. hopes North Korea “will respond positively to our outreach”. Kim Yo-jong, senior official and sister of Kim Jong-un, 22 June published statement in state media cautioning U.S. against misplaced hope of imminent breakthrough, view reiterated by North Korean FM Ri Son-gwon.
Pyongyang lambasted U.S. diplomacy following President Biden’s critical statement, while U.S. and South Korean leaders pledged to strengthen ties to guarantee regional security. In response to U.S. President Biden’s statement late April to U.S. Congress characterising North Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear program as a threat, North Korean foreign ministry 1-2 May said Biden had made “big blunder” and called U.S. diplomacy “spurious signboard” to “cover up its hostile acts”. At G7 meeting in UK, U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken and South Korean FM Chung Eui-yong 3 May reaffirmed their alliance’s role in Indo-Pacific peace and security, while Blinken said DPRK needs to take opportunity to engage diplomatically to move forward toward denuclearisation of Korean Peninsula. Chinese Envoy to UN Zhang Jun same day expressed hopes that U.S. review of North Korea policy will place more emphasis on dialogue, rather than on provocative and confrontational actions. South Korean President Moon 20-23 May visited Washington D.C. for meeting with President Biden to reaffirm security and economic ties; after summit, Biden said both leaders remained “deeply concerned” about ongoing nuclear threat from DPRK and announced appointment of new envoy to open diplomatic channels with Pyongyang. Moon same day announced joint decision with U.S. to end flight range guidelines signed in 1979 limiting Seoul’s missile development program, and called denuclearisation of Korean Peninsula “matter of survival”, affirming that main aim of meeting was to bring North Korea back on “path of dialogue”; Pyongyang 31 May criticised U.S. for ending restrictions on South Korea’s missile development, warning it could lead to “instable situation”. Chinese FM Wang Yi 28 May met North Korean Ambassador Ri Ryong-nam in China’s capital Beijing where pair pledged to “strengthen coordination and cooperation”. South Korean police 6 May raided office of anti-North Korea activist group that had stated it had released balloons into North carrying dollar bills and leaflets denouncing Pyongyang.
Amid concerns over North Korea (DPRK) economic situation, Japan and U.S. committed to working toward denuclearisation of peninsula. As concerns persisted over suspected economic and COVID-19 crises, DPRK leader Kim Jong-un 6 April acknowledged country was facing “worst-ever situation” during meeting of Workers’ Party’s secretaries in capital Pyongyang and urged members to carry out new five-year economic plan as decided at party congress in Jan. Kim Jong-un 9 April called on country to prepare for another “arduous march” — phrase commonly used to describe country’s struggle with famine in 1990s. Meanwhile, U.S., South Korea and Japan 2 April met in U.S. for high-level security summit to discuss cooperation on addressing North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs; in joint statement reaffirmed “concerted trilateral cooperation towards denuclearization”, and agreed on need for full implementation of UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea. South Korean exit polls in election for key mayoral posts – including in capital Seoul and in port of Busan – 7 April showed landslide victory for main opposition People Power Party, as Progressive Democratic party of President Moon suffered crushing defeat amid string of political scandals. After official poll results, South Korean PM Chung 16 April resigned and President Moon same day reshuffled cabinet and appointed new PM. South Korean court 21 April upheld Japan’s state immunity and dismissed lawsuit submitted by group of South Korean “comfort women” forced to work as sex slaves during Japanese occupation, contradicting Jan ruling in separate case that ordered Tokyo to compensate 12 victims.
North Korea rebuffed Washington’s diplomatic overtures, top U.S. officials visited South Korea, and Pyongyang conducted provocative missile tests. U.S. 15 March confirmed that it had attempted to reach out to Pyongyang through several channels since mid-Feb, with no response from Pyongyang; North Korea’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui 17 March called U.S. efforts “cheap tricks”, claiming that no dialogue would be possible until Washington drops its hostile policy. U.S. Sec Defence Lloyd Austin and Sec State Antony Blinken 17 March met with South Korean FM Chung Eui-yong and Defence Minister Suh Wook in South Korean capital Seoul; Blinken accused North Korea of committing “systemic and widespread abuses” against its people. Meeting concluded with joint statement emphasising that North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issues are priority for alliance. Shortly after visit, North Korea 21 March fired two cruise missiles into Yellow Sea; U.S. and Japan 24 March confirmed North Korea subsequently fired two suspected ballistic missiles into Sea of Japan, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting such tests; Japan and South Korea condemned launches while U.S. President Biden 25 March said he was open to diplomacy but warned Pyongyang not to escalate. Earlier in month, U.S. and South Korea 7 March reached deal for new six-year Special Measures Agreement that includes 13.9% increase in Seoul’s contribution to cost of hosting some 28,500 U.S. troops for 2021. U.S. and South Korea 8-16 March held nine-day joint military exercises, noting exercises are “defensive” in nature and had been scaled back because of COVID-19; Kim Yo-jong, senior official and sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, 16 March condemned exercises, warning that U.S. should refrain from “causing a stink.” Pyongyang 18 March said it would sever diplomatic relations with Malaysia after North Korean man previous day extradited to U.S. on money-laundering charges. Kim Jong-un 22 March stressed to Chinese President Xi need to strengthen unity and cooperation between both countries. International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi 2 March said North Korea continues developments of its nuclear program which remains “cause for serious concern.”
UN report revealed North Korea had funded nuclear and missile development through stolen virtual assets, while U.S. reaffirmed commitment to denuclearising peninsula. Panel of UN experts monitoring sanctions on North Korea 8 Feb concluded in confidential report to UN Security Council that Pyongyang had developed its nuclear and ballistic missile programs throughout 2020, in violation of international sanctions, funded with virtual assets estimated at $300 mn that had been stolen through cyberattacks. U.S. Department of Justice 17 Feb indicted three North Korean computer programmers responsible for numerous hacks. U.S. President Biden and South Korean President Moon 3 Feb agreed in first phone call to work on joint comprehensive North Korea strategy to achieve denuclearisation on Korean Peninsula. Seoul and Washington D.C. 5 Feb said officials from both countries held eighth round of negotiations on defence cost-sharing agreement after talks stalled for almost one year. Former first National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong 8 Feb took office as new FM; U.S. Sec State Blinken 9 Feb had call with Eui-yong during which he reaffirmed commitment to denuclearising Korean peninsula; Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi 16 Feb also spoke with new FM to discuss enhanced communication and coordination from all parties to resolve tensions on peninsula. Moon 28 Feb said Tokyo Olympics may be “chance for dialogue” between regional parties. Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un 8-12 Feb chaired plenary meeting of ruling party’s central committee during which he accused cabinet of drafting plans with “no big changes” from previous ones that “failed tremendously on almost every sector”; he further reviewed action plans for new five-year strategy, and criticised Seoul for offering cooperation in “non-fundamental areas”. UN 2 Feb released report detailing acts of torture and forced labour in North Korea’s prisons – amounting to possible crimes against humanity – and calling for UN Security Council to refer North Korea to International Criminal Court.
North Korea held rare ruling party congress and reportedly unveiled new missile, while South Korea called for inter-Korean talks and urged U.S. to pursue dialogue. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un 5-12 Jan held Eighth Party Congress of ruling Workers’ Party – first since 2016 and second since 1980 – attended by 250 party executives, over 4,500 delegates and 2,000 spectators; Kim admitted his five-year economic plan had fallen short of goals “on almost every sector” and vowed to place “state defence capabilities on a much higher level”, including by developing nuclear weapons and expanding diplomatic relations, while calling U.S. “biggest enemy”. During congress, ruling party 10 Jan elected Kim as general secretary – assuming title enjoyed by his late father and grandfather; Chinese President Xi Jinping 11 Jan congratulated Kim. Congress 12 Jan concluded with Kim reiterating call for increased military power and “greater nuclear war deterrence”. North Korea 14 Jan staged large military parade, displaying what appeared to be new submarine-launched ballistic missile described by state media as “world’s most powerful weapon”. South Korean President Moon Jae-in 11 Jan reaffirmed commitment to engagement with North Korea, said govt will also strengthen alliance with U.S.; Moon 18 Jan said incoming U.S. administration should hold talks with North Korea to build on progress made under former U.S. administration, and 20 Jan nominated former National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong as FM. South Korean Supreme Court 14 Jan upheld former President Park Geun-hye’s twenty-year prison term for bribery and other crimes. Seoul Central District Court 8 Jan ordered for first time Japan to compensate twelve South Korean “comfort women” forced to work as sex slaves during Japanese occupation; Japanese PM Suga said Japan could not accept ruling and lawsuit should be dropped.
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.”
Regional tensions over alleged arms development continued while international actors maintained pressure on Pyongyang. Following briefing by National Intelligence Service, lawmaker in Seoul 3 Nov claimed Pyongyang is building two new submarines, including one capable of firing ballistic missiles. North Korean State media 4 Nov accused Japan of building missile system, describing developments as “challenge to regional peace and stability”. After Pyongyang revealed previously unseen intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in Oct, U.S. navy 17 Nov tested for first time intercontinental missile defence system from Kwajalein Atoll in Republic of Marshall Islands, successfully intercepting ICBM. Following International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Austria’s capital Vienna, Director General Rafael Grossi 18 Nov said nuclear “activity is taking place” at Kangson facility near Pyongyang. Meanwhile, police in South Korea’s capital Seoul early Nov sent cases to prosecutors’ office against human rights groups, reportedly for breaking inter-Korean exchange law by sending balloons with anti-Pyongyang leaflets across border. Seoul 4 Nov claimed to have detained citizen from north who had crossed border near Goseong county previous evening; govt did not say whether he was civilian or member of military. UN special rapporteur on North Korea’s human rights situation 19 Nov sent letter to Seoul and Pyongyang requesting information on Sept killing of South Korean official in border incident. South Korean FM 8-11 Nov visited Washington for talks, including with Sec State Pompeo on U.S.-ROK alliance, while U.S. President-elect Biden and South Korean President Moon 12 Nov reaffirmed commitment to alliance and peaceful Korean peninsula during phone call. U.S. 19 Nov announced sanctions on North Korean company operating in Russia and Russian construction company for “exportation of forced labour from North Korea”, accusing companies of using forced labour to “generate revenue” for govt. German officials 17 Nov accused Russia and China of preventing UN Security Council from determining whether Pyongyang had violated fuel sanctions. Chinese FM Wang Yi 26 Nov met South Korean President Moon in Seoul to discuss stalled denuclearisation talks and potential visit of Chinese President Xi to capital.
North Korea unveiled new missiles during annual parade while U.S.-South Korea dispute over military cost sharing continued. Pyongyang demonstrated previously unseen long-range intercontinental ballistic missile and submarine-launched missiles at 10 Oct military parade to celebrate 75th anniversary of Party Foundation Day attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un; during event, Kim claimed all citizens in North “healthy and sound” despite reports of COVID-19 outbreaks; next day, govt in Seoul held emergency meeting to discuss military parade. U.S. and South Korea 13-14 Oct held annual military talks featuring heads of military and defence ministers; in joint statement, Washington and Seoul pledged to “continue to develop” U.S.-ROK Alliance and recognised “significant threat that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs pose”; amid continued tensions over sharing cost of maintaining 28,500 U.S. troops on Korean peninsula, statement also noted that lack of agreement has “lasting effects for Alliance readiness”. Defence ministry in Seoul 26 Oct said U.S. did not commit to maintain its current troop levels as Washington wished to have more flexible deployment. Danish documentary produced over ten years 11 Oct alleged pro-Pyongang organisation Korean Friendship Association helped North Korea evade UN ban on trading arms. Senior U.S. justice official 22 Oct accused China of helping North Korea launder money from cyber-attacks to evade UN sanctions; next day, Beijing denied accusation and said it “fully and earnestly” implements UN sanctions. In reported defection of senior official, chairman of South Korea’s National Assembly’s intelligence committee 8 Oct confirmed reports that North Korean diplomat Jo Song-gil, who disappeared while acting as ambassador to Italy in 2018, had been living in South since 2019. Pyongyang 30 Oct blamed Seoul for Sept killing of South Korean fisheries official at de facto maritime border.
Tensions remained high following North Korea’s killing of South Korean official at sea and amid concerns that North Korea might test weapon in Oct. Concerns grew that Pyongyang may intensify provocative actions as North Korean soldiers 22 Sept shot and killed South Korean fisheries official at de facto maritime border; Pyongyang warned of tensions if South Korean naval operations continued search for body; DPRK 25 Sept apologised for shooting. Pyongyang may display or test new or advanced weaponry, including possible submarine-launched ballistic missile, in lead up to 10 Oct military parade to celebrate North Korea’s 75th anniversary; Pyongyang is yet to demonstrate “new strategic weapon” announced in Dec 2019. Analysis platform 38 North 14 Sept reported satellite imagery showing four new temporary structures that may be storage units for large missile systems, including launching vehicles. Vice chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff John Hyten 17 Sept said North Korea possesses “small number” of nuclear weapons with “capabilities that can threaten their neighbours” or U.S. Ahead of 21-24 Sept International Atomic Energy Agency conference in Vienna, U.S. 19 Sept called on international efforts to achieve “fully verified denuclearization of North Korea”. Amid continued international concern over North Korea breaking UN sanctions limit on importing fuel, South Korean Yonhap news agency 2 Sept reported findings from data analytics firm Kharon alleging Russian companies Gazprom and Rosneft shipped oil worth $26mn to Pyongyang in 2018 and 2019. U.S. govt 11 Sept also accused two Hong Kong companies of acquiring over $300mn worth of communications equipment for DPRK, violating UN sanctions. Amid economic and humanitarian difficulties in North Korea due to COVID-19 concerns and floods, U.S. Deputy Sec State Steve Biegun 11 Sept said Washington will ease restrictions for U.S. aid workers traveling to country. South Korean vice FM Choi 10 Sept announced Washington and Seoul had agreed to launch a high-level dialogue channel in Oct to run parallel to U.S.-South Korean Working Group; however, U.S. state department reportedly only said they would “positively consider” move, leading to domestic criticism of Choi.
U.S. and South Korea carried out annual joint-military exercises, while Pyongyang’s economic struggles continued amid spread of COVID-19 and mass flooding. As dispute between Seoul and Washington over sharing cost of maintaining 28,500 U.S. troops on Korean Peninsula still unresolved, U.S. and South Korea 18-28 Aug held annual joint military drills; exercises smaller than previous years with U.S.-based troops unable to join due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel; North Korea unusually quiet during drills. Amid widely suspected COVID-19 epidemic, North Korea 14 Aug lifted lockdown, imposed in July, on border city of Kaesong following accusation North Korean defector who swam back from South Korea in July imported virus. Pyongyang also faced major damages from floods that began 1 Aug during monsoon season. Amid floods affecting harvest and COVID-19 causing halt to nearly all trade with China due to closing of borders, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un 20 Aug admitted to failure of govt’s economic policy during meeting of ruling party officials; hours later, South Korean media reported Kim had given responsibility for relations with Seoul and Washington to Kim Yo-jong, top official and Kim’s sister. Reuters 3 Aug reported confidential UN document stated several countries believe Pyongyang has developed “miniaturised nuclear devices” for ballistic missiles. International concerns over suspected North Korean cyberattacks continued; Israel 12 Aug said it had prevented cyberattack by Pyongyang-linked hackers on its defence industry, though a cybersecurity firm said attack had been successful. In South Korea, civil society and conservative groups, including over 50,000 protestors rallying in downtown Seoul 15 Aug, continued to accuse President Moon’s govt of authoritarian practices and violations of democratic rights, including passing new laws without due process and invading privacy; criticism among minority voices also continued over alleged election fraud during April general election. Meanwhile, Seoul 22 Aug announced new restrictions on gatherings and events following its second COVID-19 outbreak.
Tensions continued amid Seoul’s reshuffle of security team, while North Korea cast doubt on potential third U.S.-DPRK summit. South Korean President Moon Jae-in 3 July reorganised his national security team, including appointing Suh Hoon as national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong as special advisor, former lawmaker Park Jie-won – imprisoned from 2006-2007 for secretly sending money to Pyongyang to hold inter-Korean summit in 2000 – as intelligence chief and nominating ruling Democratic Party lawmaker Lee In-Young as unification minister. U.S. President Donald Trump 7 July said he believes Pyongyang wants meeting between DPRK and U.S. and he would join if “helpful”; top official and sister of DPRK leader Kim Jong-un Kim Yo-jong 10 July released statement reiterating Pyongyang’s lack of interest in another Trump-Kim summit, saying preconditions for talks had changed from previous demands of sanctions relief and end to joint U.S.-South Korea military drills to expanded position that Washington must end all “hostilities”, including rhetoric and criticism; statement came days after U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper 7 July listed North Korea among “rogue states”. Former South Korean FM and UN Sec Gen Ban Ki-moon 8 July urged govt not to “beg” North Korea during speech to National Assembly, describing Moon administration’s policies toward North as “astounding and deplorable”. North Korean state media 11 July announced reinstatement of Kim Yo-jong to political bureau of central committee in Pyongyang; Kim Yo-jong was removed from position in 2019. South Korea’s military 30 July reported Pyongyang 6 July fired missile as part of naval exercises. Amid ongoing dispute between U.S. and South Korea over sharing cost of maintaining 28,500 U.S. troops on Korean peninsula, Wall Street Journal newspaper 17 July reported U.S. Defence Department had presented Trump administration with options to reduce number of troops, raising concerns in South Korea and Japan over potential impact on security. UK 6 July announced sanctions against two North Korean ministries for reportedly running prison camps. Analysts at Middlebury Institute of International Studies 8 July reported suspected undeclared nuclear facility in Wollo-ri village near Pyongyang.
Inter-Korean tensions significantly rose as Pyongyang increased pressure on Seoul, demolished liaison office near border and threatened military action; meanwhile economic situation in DPRK continued to deteriorate. After North Korea 9 June ended all inter-Korean communication, Kim Yo-jong, top official and sister of DPRK leader Kim Jong-un, warned 13 June that Pyongyang will “take its next action” and “break with the South Korean authorities”; Seoul’s Ministry of Unification next day urged Pyongyang to “honour all inter-Korean agreements”. North Korea 16 June demolished inter-Korean liaison office in border town of Kaesong set up after 2018 summit between two Korean leaders, citing Seoul’s failure to stop activists and North Korean defectors sending leaflets, food and aid across border, as well as South Korea’s continued military exercises and lack of progress in lifting sanctions. In attempt to prevent anti-Pyongyang leafleteers earlier in month, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification 10 June said it would press charges against two activist groups. Following demolition of office, DPRK 17 June rejected South’s offer to send special envoy to de-escalate tensions and vowed to redeploy troops to border areas of Mount Kumgang and Kaesong; South Korea’s Defence Ministry reiterated support for 2018 agreement but warned of “strong response” to any military provocation. After South Korean unification minister 17 June offered resignation, members of ruling-Democratic Party called for reshuffle of U.S.-South Korea working group, claiming Washington was damaging inter-Korean relations; Seoul’s chief nuclear negotiator same day arrived in Washington to discuss recent tensions on peninsula and potential responses; DPRK state media 24 June said Kim suspended “military action plans against the south”. North Korea’s economy reportedly continued to deteriorate amid COVID-19 and halting of nearly all trade with China due to closed borders; Pyongyang continued to blame international sanctions. Amid ongoing dispute between U.S. and South Korea over cost sharing of maintaining 28,500 U.S. troops on Korean peninsula, U.S. military 2 June announced Seoul agreed to pay $200mn for 4,000 Korean nationals working with U.S. forces.
North Korean leader reappeared in public following speculation about his health, inter-Korean tensions flared at border, and concerns about food shortages inside DPRK surfaced. Following almost three weeks of public absence and widespread speculation about Kim Jong-Un’s well-being, DPRK state media released photos and video of North Korean leader at 1 May opening ceremony of Sunchon fertiliser plant north of Pyongyang. Shortly after, tensions flared on inter-Korean border when DPRK 3 May fired multiple gunshots across demilitarised zone and four bullets hit South Korean guard post in border town of Cheorwon; in response Seoul fired warning shots but later called events an “accident”; Pyongyang did not reply to South’s request for explanation nor cooperate in