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.
U.S. accused North Korea of supplying munitions to Russia, raising concern over pair’s military cooperation, while U.S., South Korea and Japan held first ever trilateral aerial military drills.
U.S. unveiled evidence pointing to North Korean weapons supplies to Russia. After North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited Russia’s Far East in Sept to meet Russian President Putin, fuelling speculation that Pyongyang was planning to supply munitions to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, U.S. intelligence 13 Oct revealed it had observed between 300 and 1,000 shipping containers travelling by boat from North Korean port Rajin to Russian military port Dunay before containers were transported to ammunition depot closer to Russia-Ukraine border. After visiting North Korea for talks with Kim Jong Un, Russian FM Sergei Lavrov 20 Oct denied U.S. allegations, saying he “does not comment on rumours”. North Korean ambassador to Russia next day criticised U.S. deliveries of ATACMS ground-to-ground missiles to Ukraine. Concerns mounted regarding how Russia may compensate Pyongyang, as Kim Jong Un is likely seeking modern fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and assistance with satellite launch technologies banned under UN Security Council resolutions; military cooperation is likely to deepen Western antipathy toward dialogue and further sour relations on peninsula.
U.S., Japan and South Korea conducted military exercises. In their first ever trilateral aerial exercises, U.S., Japan and South Korea 22 Oct staged drill that involved U.S. strategic bombers and fighter aircraft from Japan and South Korea; exercises followed historic Aug summit between three allies where they agreed to deepen defence cooperation. U.S. and South Korea 25-27 Oct staged exercise to counter “Hamas-style” artillery attack on Seoul from North (see Israel-Palestine).
No diplomacy after release of U.S. private. After North Korea late Sept expelled U.S. military deserter Travis King, who returned to U.S. to face range of charges, U.S. State Dept 20 Oct said King’s release “will not lead” to any diplomatic engagement with North Korea.
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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