US-North Korea tensions in 2017 over the latter's nuclear weapons ambitions were replaced by dialogue and detente between 2018 and mid-2019. However, after two face-to-face summits between President Donald Trump and his Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un, the mood has darkened once again. This briefing reviews developments over the past 18 months and assesses future prospects.Jump to full report >>
2017 was a year of rapidly rising tensions between the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (henceforth North Korea). During that year, North Korea conducted two intercontinental ballistic missile tests and a sixth nuclear weapons test.
The regime looked close to having a nuclear weapons capability that could hit the US mainland. US President Donald Trump called on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme or face destruction. UN sanctions were further tightened.
However, there was a sudden improvement in relations in early-2018, with both sides talking up the prospects for peace. Then in April 2018 North Korean President Kim Jong-un announced a moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests, saying the country no longer needed such tests. The US welcomed the announcement.
There have been two US-North Korea summits since then. Both involved direct meetings (the first ever) between the leaders of the two countries. There was also a third face-to-face meeting in the Demilitarised Zone which divides the two Korea. There was a series of summits between North Korea and South Korea, at which important confidence-building measure were agreed.
But in recent months the mood has darkened once again, heightening concerns that the parties are abandoning dialogue for confrontation.
Kim Jong-un announced in late-2019 that the US had until the end of the year to make concrete proposals to revive the dialogue. He said that, in their absence, North Korea would give the world a ”Christmas gift”.
Few expected it to be a welcome one. There was speculation that it would be either another nuclear weapons test or the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the US mainland.
On 25 December, a Central Committee meeting of the Korean Workers Party began. Kim made several speeches at the meeting. He called for “positive and offensive measures” to safeguard the country’s “sovereignty and security”, announcing that North Korea was abandoning its moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile testing.
He also said that regime would be unveiling a new “strategic weapon” soon. Nobody is sure what kind of weapon this might be. However, some suggest that it might be a new class of ballistic missile submarine.
With the US Administration addressing domestic political challenges and involved in escalating tension with Iran, North Korea may feel it does not yet have its full attention. So even though the promised ”Christmas gift” did not materialise, some kind of provocative military operation is still possible if the US-North Korea dialogue does not revive.
Experts disagree about which of the two holds the stronger cards in the current stand-off. Aidan Foster-Carter has argued recently that Kim Jong-un has the upper hand. By contrast, fellow expert Nicholas Eberstadt believes that the US enjoys the advantage – which might explain why President Trump appears relatively relaxed about the situation.
It might also explain why the US remains disinclined to move towards the North Korean position on denuclearisation, which remains a gradualist one based on reciprocal actions – with some sanctions relief upfront: ‘something for something’.
The US continues to hold to its view that North Korea should denuclearise first, after which everything else will follow: security guarantees through a peace treaty that ends the Korean War and the complete lifting of sanctions.
As for inter-Korean negotiations, these will only revive if the US-North Korean dialogue re-starts in earnest.
More broadly, crucial strategic questions remain unanswered.
Is North Korea willing to denuclearise? Some experts believe Kim has made a definitive switch towards prioritising North Korea’s ailing economy, meaning everything really is up for negotiation. But many find it hard to believe that it will completely give up its nuclear weapons.
Will the US sustain its insistence that North Korea must denuclearise? Or could it ultimately accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, albeit one that has scaled down its capabilities dramatically (above all, in terms of its ability to strike the US mainland) and which is subject to credible verification?
Finally, what happens next will be heavily impacted by wider relations between the US and China. The two have been in a trade war and are testing each other out in the South China Sea. China sees North Korea as its backyard, albeit often a very troublesome one.
If the US-North Korea dialogue is to revive, the two global superpowers will need to maintain lines of communication on the issue and find ways of coordinating their actions.
Drawing conclusions about future prospects on the nuclear issue is not straight-forward. Indeed, making sense of North Korea is not easy. Many North Korea experts acknowledge that “most of the time we are entirely ignorant, and a very large part of what is reported in the media is based on unreliable hearsay.”
For further background, please consult the following Library publications:
Making sense of the impending US-North Korea summit, Library blog, May 2018
Prospects for the second US-North Korea summit, Library blog, February 2019
Commons Briefing papers CBP-8793
Author: Jon Lunn