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.
Last week the world watched the first-ever meeting between a North Korean leader and a U.S. president. Crisis Group offers a 360-degree view of how the summit played in the U.S., the Korean peninsula, China and Japan – and what it may mean going forward.
North Korea leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump held historic bilateral summit in Singapore 12 June, issuing joint statement incorporating mutual commitment to establishing new relations, building peace and stability regime on Korean peninsula, and recovery and repatriation of remains of American prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action in North Korea; and reaffirmation from Pyongyang of 27 April Panmunjom Declaration commitment to work toward “complete denuclearization” of peninsula; U.S. also committed to provide security guarantees to Pyongyang. In press conference following summit, Trump pledged that U.S. would suspend annual military exercises with South Korea; Seoul reportedly not forewarned of move, prompting concerns over alliance coordination; U.S. VP Pence and White House later gave reassurances that U.S. military would continue to train with South Korean counterparts and conduct military drills, but not large-scale joint exercises, which Trump called “war games”. Some commentators criticised vagueness of summit statement, lack of concrete commitments. Nevertheless, Beijing 12 June called for UN Security Council to review sanctions regime; Russia also called for sanctions relief; U.S. and South Korea 18 June suspended planning for annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise; and Seoul 20 June cancelled three-day Taeguk command-post exercise scheduled for late June. After meeting with South Korean and Japanese diplomats and Chinese President Xi, U.S. Sec State Mike Pompeo said countries agreed to keep UN sanctions in place until denuclearisation is complete. Kim Jong-un arrived in Beijing 19 June for his third visit to China since March, and first official one. Pyongyang and Seoul 14 June held first high-level military talks since December 2007; agreed to restore cross-border communication lines, implement 2004 agreement to prevent unexpected clashes in West Sea, and discussed withdrawal of heavy weapons from border area. In contrast with diplomatic progress, 38 North website cited 21 June satellite imagery showing North Korea making rapid upgrades to its Yongbyon nuclear facility, while NBC news 30 June quoted U.S. officials saying Pyongyang had stepped up enriched uranium production at several secret sites in recent months.
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.
[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.
I don’t think it benefits North Korea to appear be too much of a cheap date. It ill behooves them to have everyone thinking that they are desperate.
China is the only state willing and able to immediately ease North Korea’s economic burden.
Any successful deal with North Korea will require an extraordinary amount of patience and attention to detail.
Originally published in Politico Magazine
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.
The 2018 Winter Olympic Games, together with the 70th anniversary of both North and South Korea, represents an opportunity for diplomacy to help reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.