The Korean Peninsula Crisis (I): In the Line of Fire and Fury

What’s new? The threat of catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula is graver than at any time in recent history. North Korea’s neighbours – South Korea, China, Japan and Russia – are caught between Pyongyang’s sprint to expand its nuclear capability and Washington’s apparent determination to stop that dash at virtually any cost.

Why does it matter? Strategic calculations in the region are evolving, prompted not only by the fear of North Korean weapons but also by the spectre of chaos provoked by U.S. military action. All of North Korea’s neighbours believe that the risks of U.S. strikes against Pyongyang far outweigh any potential benefit.

What should be done? The window ahead of the Winter Olympics, thawing North Korea-South Korea relations and Pyongyang’s desire to shore up its economy provide an opportunity. A deal whereby Pyongyang freezes its most sensitive tests and Washington freezes some military exercises could help de-escalate the crisis and buy time for diplomacy.

Executive Summary

The threat of nightmarish war on the Korean peninsula is higher than at any time in recent history. As the pace of North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing increased throughout 2017, so too did the U.S.’ bellicosity. North Korea’s neighbours – South Korea, China, Japan and Russia – are caught between Pyongyang’s sprint to expand its nuclear capability and an administration in Washington apparently determined to stop that dash at virtually any cost. Strategic calculations in the region are evolving, due not only to fear of North Korean weapons but also to the spectre of chaos provoked by U.S. military action. Yet opportunities for de-escalation exist: North and South Korea have reopened diplomatic channels, while the more U.S. aggressive posture has added urgency to China’s efforts to find a way out of the crisis.

The sense of peril owes much to confusion about why North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered his breakneck pace of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. There is good reason to believe that, like his predecessor, Kim is driven chiefly by worry that without such deterrence his country risks attack – and his regime risks ouster – by outside powers. He appears propelled by domestic dynamics as well. A greater nuclear capability shores up Kim’s internal support, burnishes his prestige and diverts attention from deep economic troubles.

What keeps U.S. officials awake is the possibility that Kim might have a third motivation: that acquiring the means to strike major U.S. cities would allow North Korea to dictate an outcome to the crisis on the peninsula. Those scenarios range from the lifting of sanctions to U.S. withdrawal all the way to forced reunification of north and south. Washington fears that Pyongyang’s better ballistic missiles will inhibit its own freedom of action: the U.S. wants to deter not be deterred.

Yet if there is unease about Pyongyang, so too is there puzzlement about Washington. The Trump administration veers from bombast to conciliation. It is squeezing the North Korean regime with a strategy of “maximum pressure”. This involves, first, sanctions and demands that China lean harder on Kim, despite pursuing a maximalist objective – denuclearisation – that no amount of pressure will achieve. More obviously, it involves the White House cultivating the impression it is ready to use force to slow Pyongyang’s weapons program, notwithstanding the catastrophic – indeed unthinkable – risks such action would entail. Then again, President Donald Trump at times broaches the option of diplomacy.

The game of nerves and one-upmanship places North Korea’s neighbours in a bind. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, supports harsh sanctions on Pyongyang but the last thing he or his citizens either want or can afford is military confrontation. Moon swiftly accepted Kim Jong-un’s 1 January 2018 offer of contact, which has since become a joint commitment to military-to-military as well as high-level political talks.

As the pre-eminent regional power and North Korean economic lifeline, China will have to be an integral part of any solution. President Xi Jinping’s assertive leadership includes a tougher line with Pyongyang, which in turn has become ever pricklier at the exertions of Chinese influence. Xi has curtailed economic assistance and acquiesced to stricter sanctions. Still, and for now, Beijing’s core assumptions remain unchanged: it will not incur Pyongyang’s overt hostility by signing up to an American drive for denuclearisation at any cost. From Beijing’s perspective, a nuclear North Korea is a worry, but a manageable one, while a military conflict is a menace, and an uncontrollable one. China proposes to quell the immediate crisis with a freeze of North Korean nuclear and missile testing in exchange for a freeze of U.S. military exercises in the vicinity. But, thus far, it is confounded in that aim by Kim’s recklessness, on one hand, and Trump’s stubbornness, on the other.

Japan and Russia play less central parts, but their proximity – and Russia’s historical ties – to North Korea give them important stakes in the crisis. Japan broadly tracks U.S. policy on North Korea, and Russia, Chinese policy. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been more supportive than other neighbours of the “maximum pressure” campaign, though in Tokyo, as elsewhere, there is disquiet at the danger of confrontation. Russia opposes North Korea’s nuclearisation but has little appetite for hostilities on the peninsula. It also is quick to seize any opportunity to cast the U.S. in a negative light and, on occasion, to offer Pyongyang support.

For decades, Pyongyang’s nuclear program has shaped relations among major powers and regional states, as well as dynamics within the latter. While Kim’s accelerated weapons program and Trump’s combativeness are new, the fundamental challenge – how to restrain North Korea while addressing some of its core concerns – remains. So, too, does consensus among North Korea’s neighbours on core principles: the need to halt Pyongyang’s military nuclear drive; conviction that this objective is not worth risking war on the peninsula; belief that the costs of even limited military action outweigh any potential benefit; and certainty that a solution must be found through diplomacy. If top U.S. officials genuinely believe that military action is their best option – and it is hard to tell if such indications are tactical bluff or genuine intent – then they are on their own.

Yet there may be (thin) silver linings to the dangerous turn the crisis has taken over the past year. U.S. belligerence has jangled the nerves of regional powers but also likely steeled their will to find an off-ramp. North Korea’s advances in its nuclear and missile program could make this moment propitious for diplomacy. Rekindled ties between Seoul and Pyongyang could defuse tensions in the short window ahead of the February 2018 Winter Olympics. Sober heads in Washington might convince the president to use this window to seek some form of de-escalatory deal.

As laid out in a companion Crisis Group Report, The Korean Peninsula Crisis (II): From Fire and Fury to Freeze-for-Freeze, this deal would likely involve a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear tests and some of its missile tests in return for U.S. commitment to halt deployment of strategic assets to the region and its most provocative joint exercises with South Korea, combined with a new diplomatic process to find a more durable solution. Absent such an initiative, the period after the Olympics could bring fresh escalation and the risk of war on the peninsula could mount still further.

Seoul/Beijing/Washington/New York/Brussels, 23 January 2018


The nuclear program of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) is more than six decades old. Over this period, the program has been influenced by and, in turn, helped shape the North Korean state’s economy, ideology and external posture; great power contestation in the region; and dynamics in and between all of the states in North East Asia. It has been critical to the development of the Kim family regime, and is vital to Kim Jong-un’s hold on power.

Recent years have seen a marked evolution in the geopolitics surrounding the DPRK nuclear crisis, shaped by four successions: from Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un in North Korea in 2011 and from Barack Obama to Donald Trump in the U.S. in 2017; but also from Park Geun-hye to Moon Jae-in in South Korea, also in 2017; and from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping in China five years earlier. While there is considerable continuity in the four states’ policies and relations to one another, today’s leaders have taken actions, in part to distinguish themselves from their respective predecessors, that have sharpened the existing dynamics and helped provoke the present crisis.

Pyongyang has made considerable technical progress since the 2009 missile and nuclear tests that sounded the death knell for the Six-Party Talks. That was the last forum to yield an agreement ostensibly committing North Korea to ending its nuclear program, the 2005 Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks. Its long-range missile tests are more frequent and the results are more reliable – the projectiles are flying further. Since 2012, it has conducted more than 30 operational tests of short- and medium-range missiles from different locations. These dry runs included the visually spectacular simultaneous launch of three extended-range Scud missiles from a highway south of Pyongyang on 5 September 2016.

Even more provocatively, in the last two years, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests: one on 9 September 2016, and the other on 3 September 2017. Over the summer of 2017, it twice tested the Hwasong-14, a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with a longer reach and greater mobility than North Korea’s previous weapons, and tested two medium-range missiles over Japanese territory. It tested the Hwasong-15, yet another ICBM, but conspicuously larger and which appeared to have a more mobile and sophisticated launch mechanism, at the end of November. The latter can, in principle, strike anywhere on the U.S. mainland. Pyongyang reportedly cannot yet fit nuclear warheads onto missiles. Nor has it developed the technology to protect them during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. One expert argues the DPRK is several years from achieving either. Neither does consensus exi