The recent exchange of aggressive rhetoric between North Korea and the U.S. over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and missile program has been one of the most vitriolic to date, posing a serious threat to security in the region and beyond. North Korea continues to violate UN resolutions as it accelerates its nuclear program and carries out ballistic missile tests at a quickened pace. Beijing, its most important ally and trading partner, is frustrated by its neighbour’s policy but prefers continuity of the status quo to the instability that would follow radical change. Crisis Group works to decrease the risk of nuclear and conventional war on the peninsula while directing our regional and global advocacy at identifying opportunities for cooperation between stakeholders on all sides.
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.
South Korean President Moon visited Pyongyang 18-20 Sept for his third summit meeting this year with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, discussing denuclearisation, progress toward permanent peace, and prospects for North-South economic integration; issued Pyongyang Declaration stating Kim agreed to allow international observers to oversee dismantling of missile test site and launch pad, while expressing “willingness” to permanently dismantle Yeongbyeon nuclear complex provided U.S. takes unspecified “corresponding measures”. Still no commitments to providing nuclear inventory or clear denuclearisation timeline. In potential clash with sanctions enforcement, declaration called for rail and road links to be reconnected by year-end and proposals to reopen tours to Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong Industrial Complex. Summit came just after Pyongyang and Seoul opened joint liaison office in Kaesong region 14 Sept to facilitate communication and cooperation. U.S. 17 Sept convened urgent meeting of UN Security Council following confidential UN Panel of Experts report that reportedly cited Chinese and Russian help for North Korean sanctions evasion. Russia and China at 27 Sept Security Council meeting pushed for easing of sanctions to incentivise North Korea to open up; U.S. disagreed. U.S. Sec State Mike Pompeo met with North Korean FM Ri Yong Ho on sidelines of UN General Assembly 26 Sept; Pompeo expected to visit Pyongyang in Oct to prepare for second U.S.-North Korea summit; U.S. President Trump praised Kim, said he did not have a time frame for denuclearisation, and said sanctions must stay for now. Widely rumoured visit by Chinese President Xi to Pyongyang to attend country’s 70th anniversary celebrations did not materialise; attending instead, Politburo Standing Committee member Li Zhanshu met with Kim Jong-un 10 Sept, described China’s hopes that North Korea and U.S. will implement bilateral summit agreements and declared China’s commitment to full denuclearisation of peninsula. Anniversary parade in Pyongyang 9 Sept conspicuously omitted displays of provocative military hardware; Trump described absence of ostensibly nuclear-capable inter-continental ballistic missiles as “big and very positive statement” by North.
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.
In the shadow of growing North Korean threats, South Korea needs to reform its intelligence apparatus to restore public confidence while enhancing the country’s intelligence capacity.
North Korea’s belligerent behaviour is testing the patience of China, its principal backer, but a consequential Chinese policy change, which the U.S. and its allies hope for, is not likely soon.
The [U.S.] president is prepared to bluster and threaten, but he also wants to achieve the deal of the century. With North Korea, it worked because he had a willing partner. The problem he’s going to face with Iran is that the leaders there believe a meeting would validate his strategy
Broadly speaking, one side [the U.S.] wants denuclearization first, normalization of relations later, and the other [North Korea] wants normalization of relations first, then denuclearization later.
[Pyongyang is] trying to encourage China to lobby for the sanctions to be lifted and to provide financial help, trade and investment. China’s long-standing policy has been to encourage engagement and try to change North Korean behaviour through trade and development. So as long as North Korea refrains from provocations, we can expect this dialogue to continue.
I think Kim wanted to win the hearts [of people] and draw some sympathy for himself and his regime, as part of an effort to weaken resolve to maintain sanctions and pressure.
[South Korean] President Moon has brought South Korea into the middle of the frame (...) and he again showed Trump the mesmerizing all-consuming media impact that a summit can have — something that’s bound to appeal.”
Kim is already trying to move closer to China, and further uncertainty about the U.S. will likely make him more willing to offer concessions to Beijing. If Kim refrains from further testing and demonstrates good behaviour, while blaming the U.S. for being unreasonable, he could encourage China, South Korea and Russia to lobby for loosening of sanctions, either formally, or through less rigorous implementation and enforcement.
Any successful deal with North Korea will require an extraordinary amount of patience and attention to detail.
Originally published in Politico Magazine
Symbolism and substance combined to make the 27 April meeting between the North and South Korean presidents a momentous occasion. Much needs to be done to overcome scepticism from past failures, but the concrete timeline the two countries laid out in the Panmunjom Declaration could lead to transformative steps.
After weeks in which other actors have taken notable steps towards defusing fears of war over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program, a China-North Korea summit held 26-27 March in Beijing has reasserted China’s pivotal role in efforts to find a solution to the nuclear crisis.
Following the first inter-Korean summit in ten years, the announcement that President Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a promising sign. Although Pyongyang is unlikely to change its strategic course, the summit provides an opportunity for the U.S. to pair its maximum pressure with diplomacy and coordinate with Asian powers.
President Trump’s 8 March acceptance of an invitation to meet his counterpart Kim Jong-un marks a first in U.S.-North Korea relations and a rare opening for diplomacy. To maximise the chance of a successful summit, all sides will have to prepare a realistic agenda and align their expectations.