Events on the Korean peninsula are among the most dramatic on the world stage. Amid cycles of rapprochement and disaffection between North and South, relations between Pyongyang and Washington careen back and forth from bellicosity to detente. At stake are not just North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs but also peace and security in North East Asia. China, the North’s most important ally, has cooperated in enforcing strict sanctions in an attempt to temper its partner’s bravado. But ultimately it prefers the status quo to the instability that would follow radical change. Crisis Group works to decrease the risk of war on the peninsula while advocating for creative solutions for all parties to implement as they pursue their long-term goals.
On 31 May, Pyongyang tried – and failed – to send a military reconnaissance satellite into space. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Chris Green explains why it took this action and what can be done to keep regional tensions from rising.
North Korea successfully launched satellite and abrogated 2018 military agreement with South Korea, removing important safeguard against risk of cross-border clashes.
North Korea put satellite into orbit on third attempt of 2023. North Korea 21 Nov launched military reconnaissance satellite in country’s third launch attempt this year, following previous failures in May and Aug, and first since North Korean leader agreed with Russian President Putin in Sept to conduct unspecified collaboration in field of satellite launches; there is no evidence, however, that Russian help was determinative in launch. Pyongyang detonated first stage of rocket in mid-air to ensure it could not be retrieved from sea. If satellite will function as intended, it will provide north with upgraded surveillance of South Korean and U.S. militaries, although South Korea asserted scepticism of North’s technology.
Inter-Korean military deal collapsed, heightening conflict risks at border. In response to satellite launch, South Korea next day announced suspension of one-part of 2018 military agreement with Pyongyang – designed to ease bilateral tensions during period of diplomacy in 2018-19 – thus permitting Seoul to restore full aerial reconnaissance and surveillance along inter-Korean border. North Korea next day abrogated whole deal, accusing South of “frontal challenge to the spirit of the agreement”. Collapse of agreement heightens risk of accidental or deliberate cross-border clashes in coming months as North Korea is now likely to begin rebuilding border guard posts destroyed during 2018, bringing soldiers into closer contact; Pyongyang could redeploy soldiers to Kaesong Industrial Complex and tourism resort at Mount Kumgang, as well as step up drone activity near border and cross-border propaganda leafleting and loudspeaker broadcasts.
North Korea continued close engagement with Russia. North Korea’s minister of external economic relations Yun Jong Ho and Russia’s natural resources minister Alexander Kozlov 15 Nov met in North Korean capital Pyongyang to discuss implementation of agreements reached between leaders Kim Jong Un and Putin in Sept; Kozlov noted agreement on joint geological explorations in North Korea in search of gold, iron, and rare earth metal deposits, intention to increase Russia’s agricultural exports and bring bilateral trade back to pre-pandemic levels.
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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