Crisis in Korean Peninsula – Past and Present

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Events in the Korean Peninsula are among the most dramatic in international politics. The current escalated tensions in the region proved negotiations in recent years with high focus on nuclear disarmament as a futile attempt to address the crisis. Economic engagement and improved people-to-people ties with tangible economic returns for North Korea are some ways to improve the situation.

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Where is the Korean Peninsula?

  • The Korean Peninsula is a peninsula in East Asia.
  • It extends southwards approximately 684 miles or 1,100 km from continental Asia into the Pacific Ocean.
  • It is surrounded by East Sea/Sea of Japan on the east, the East China Sea to the south, the Yellow Sea to the West.
  • The northern side of the peninsula shares borders with China and Russia.
  • The rivers Yalu/Amnok and Tumen/Tuman/Duman form natural borders between the neighbours (China and Russia) and North Korea.

Why is the Korean Peninsula divided?

  • Before the division, the single, unified Korean Peninsula was under the regimes of numerous dynastic kingdoms.
  • It was later occupied by Japan, leading to it becoming a part of the oppressive Japanese regime for 35 years until the end of the Second World War.
  • In 1945, the USSR was advancing through North Korea, defeating the Japanese army, when the news of Japan’s surrender broke out.
  • During this time, the US did not have a base in the Korean peninsula and feared a complete takeover by the Soviet Union.
  • In order to prevent the Soviet from capturing the entire peninsula, the US advocated for a temporary division of the Korean peninsula between the two superpowers. The USSR agreed to this suggestion.
  • The peninsula was divided by the naturally prominent 38th parallel so that the US had Seoul in its side.
  • The USSR, as a result, did not pass through 38th parallel and the US eventually gained dominance in the South.
  • At this point, the division was meant to be a provisional administration arrangement and Korea was to be unified under a new government.
  • Yet, the division resulted in differences in political ideologies among the divided population in the north and south of the peninsula.
  • While the population in the North supported communist government under the influence of the USSR, the population in the South backed democracy because of the US’ influence.
  • In 1947, the UN was to oversee the elections of both North and South to form one democratically elected government.
  • The lack of trust and increased differences led to the failure to form the proposed reunified government.
  • These differences were backed by the US and USSR by supporting their own leaders.
  • While the USSR blocked elections in the North and supported the communist leader Kim II Sung as the head of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the US in South supported Syngman Rhee as the leader of the Republic of Korea (ROK). North Korea, since then, has been under the regime of the Kim Dynasty.
  • A year later, according to a UN agreement, both the US and USSR withdrew their armies from the Korean Peninsula, leaving newly separated regions to indulge in constant scuffles across the dividing line.
  • On 25th June 1950, the DPRK launched an attack on ROK and invaded the entire peninsula, leading to the start of the three-year Korean War.
  • By July, the UN intervened and troops from around 15 nations (majority from the US) came as reinforcement for South Korea.
  • The conflict intensified as China supported DPRK.
  • In 1953, the Korean War ended in an armistice, giving birth to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the 38th parallel.
  • Seven decades have passed since the conflict began, with no peace treaty or reunification in sight.
  • Since the beginning of the Korean War, both Koreas have steadily increased their military spending.
  • The US has stationed thousands of troops along the DMZ, making the Peninsula one of the most militarized zones of the world.
  • Meanwhile, North Korea’s military spending as a percentage of GDP is the highest as it spends nearly one-fourth of its GDP for the military. It currently has the world’s fourth-largest army.

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Which countries are involved in economic relations with North Korea?

  • Sanctions imposed by the UN have made it hard for North Korea to indulge in international trade.
  • Because of this, China is the largest trading partner as it receives 80% of North Korea’s exports.
  • The top export destinations of North Korea after China are Pakistan, India and Ghana.
  • The main exports of the country in 2017 are textiles, coal briquette and molluscs.
  • Imports are mainly from China, Russia, India and Latin American countries of Peru and Honduras.
  • The latest sanctions focus mainly on North Korean exports, banning the country from trading coal, the main source of income.

North Korea and Nuclear weapons:

How did North Korea achieve nuclear capabilities?

  • North Korea’s nuclear programme began in the early 1950s with the help of USSR, which provided technical training and helped establish nuclear research complex in the country.
  • Though North Korea gained extensive assistance from the Soviet Union and to some extent from China, its nuclear program developed largely without significant foreign aid.
  • Its relationship with Beijing suffered when China refused to share nuclear weapons technology.
  • In 1977, North Korea signed a trilateral safeguard agreement with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the USSR, bringing in IRT-2000 research reactor and critical assembly to Yongbyon nuclear facility.
  • In the 1980s, North Korea began experimenting with the high explosive tests needed for building the triggering mechanism of a nuclear bomb. During the same period, it had started the construction of a 50MW(e) nuclear reactor in Yongbyon and expanded its uranium processing facilities.
  • In 1985, North Korea became the signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapon state in exchange for USSR’s assistance for construction of four Light-Water Reactors (LWRs).
  • On March 1993, North Korea threatened withdrawal from the NPT after IAEA requested UNSC to authorise special ad hoc inspection of suspected nuclear waste sites, which was earlier denied by Pyongyang.
  • After negotiations with the US, Pyongyang agreed to suspend its withdrawal while talks continued. However, it claimed to have a special status on its nuclear safeguards commitments, under which it refused to allow inspections to verify past nuclear activities.
  • While the talks dragged on, North Korea continued operating its 5MW(e) reactor in Yongbyon.
  • It later removed the reactor’s spent fuel rods without IAEA inspection and randomly placed them in a temporary storage pond, compromising the IAEA’s capacity to reconstruct the operational history of the reactor.
  • This worsened the situation and resulted in the US calling for sanctions.
  • The crisis was later defused in 1994 after the US and North Korea finalised the Agreed Framework.
  • Under this agreement, North Korea agreed to freeze work at its gas-graphite moderated reactors and related facilities and to allow the IAEA to monitor that freeze.
  • North Korea was also required to remain a part of NPT and consistently take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
  • In exchange, the US agreed to lead an international consortium to construct two light-water power reactors and provide 500,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil per year until the first reactor came online.
  • This agreement froze North Korea’s plutonium programme for almost a decade.
  • However, neither party was satisfied as the US was discontented with the postponement of safeguards inspections to verify DPRK’s past nuclear activities and North Korea was dissatisfied with the delayed construction of the light-water power reactors.
  • In 2002, US intelligence found evidence of highly enriched uranium (HEU) technology and/or materials transferred from Pakistan to North Korea in exchange for ballistic missile technology.
  • During this time, North Korea began construction of covert uranium enrichment facility in Kangson in the outskirts of Pyongyang.
  • This was made public only in 2018.
  • The US responded to these issues in December 2002 by suspending heavy oil shipments. North Korea retaliated by lifting the freeze on its nuclear facilities and expelling IAEA inspectors monitoring the freeze and announced its withdrawal from NPT on January 10, 2003.
  • In 2003, the dialogue was initiated in Beijing to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme. Its participants include China, North Korea, the US, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
  • The Six-Party negotiations were halted after three rounds of talks because of tensions between parties, especially the US and North Korea.
  • The talks restarted in 2005, with the fourth round of talks resulting in the signing of a Statement of Principles, whereby Pyongyang would abandon its nuclear programme and return to the NPT and IAEA safeguards regime.
  • Like all other previous negotiations, this too remained unsuccessful due to differences between the US and North Korea and various other issues.
  • In October 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, which faced several technical hurdles, preventing it from obtaining nuclear warheads.
  • Sanctions and failed Six-Party negotiations followed this incident.
  • The second nuclear test was conducted in 2009 with improved progress.
  • North Korea, during 2010 and 2011, though it stated that it was willing to proceed with denuclearisation efforts, was involved in a military skirmish with the South. At the same time, it was involved in improving its nuclear capabilities.
  • In December 2011, following the death of Kim Jong ll, Kim Jong Un became the supreme leader of North Korea.
  • In 2013, under Kim Jong-un’s watch, North Korea successfully conducted its third nuclear test by testing “lighter, miniaturised atomic bomb” and restarted its 5MW graphite-moderated reactor and uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon.
  • In 2016, North Korea carried out its fifth nuclear explosion, which estimated to be having yield between 10 and 20 kilotons.
  • The year 2017 saw significant development in North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programmes as well as Trump’s growing rhetoric.
  • During the same year, North Korea conducted its 6th nuclear test, which released 140 kilotons of TNT – much larger explosive yield than previous 5 tests.
  • Subsequent months saw an improved relationship between both Koreas under the regime of the newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who opted for a policy of openness toward the North.
  • This led to North Korea suspending all nuclear and ICBM tests and the US engaging in peace negotiations with Pyongyang.


Why does North Korea have nuclear weapons?

The nuclear weapons fulfil several of Pyongyang’s long-term foreign policy objectives. These include:

Regime’s survival:

  • Since gaining power in 2011, the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has significantly increased testing of nuclear weapons and missiles needed for countering the US and its allies.
  • Kim Jong-un has linked the country’s nuclear and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile programmes with his need for survival as he lacks revolutionary credentials or lengthy government tenure of his predecessors – Kim ll-Sung and Kim Jong-il.
  • Pyongyang justified the increased nuclear capability as guaranteed protection against the US’ policy of intimidation, military attacks and regime change against authoritarian regimes.
  • In 2018, Kim Jong-un stated that the country would not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is the encroached upon by any aggressive forces.


  • Contrary to the popular perception that China is a close political ally of North Korea, Pyongyang feels constantly threatened by its neighbour in the north as it does with the US since Beijing agreed to join in the sanctions against it.
  • North Korean nuclear programme is due to the perception that the regime could not rely on either of its superpower allies (USSR and China) for defence.
  • This perception came after Moscow abandoned Havana during the Cuban missile crisis and Beijing refused to share information about its nuclear tests.

Coercive diplomacy:

  • The improved nuclear capability would enable Pyongyang to deter any form of external threat that seeks to overthrow the current regime.
  • It could also enable North Korea to pressure Six-Party Talks participants to abandon denuclearisation as their ultimate objective and accept North Korea’s nuclear programs in return for diplomatic and economic concessions.

Breaking up alliances

  • North Korea has, for a long time, sought to decouple the US-South Korea alliance by depicting Seoul’s alliance with Washington as a hindrance to the progress in inter-Korea relations and eventual reunification.
  • It often called for halting of all nuclear war drills by the US and South Korea.
  • Currently, many in South Korea are supporting an independent policy with lesser dependence on Washington because of the America First policy and the possibility of the US contemplating a preventive attack on North Korea.

What is the diplomatic strategy of North Korea?

Achieving objectives before negotiations:

  • North Korea often achieved several objectives before even entering the negotiation table.
  • It would strengthen its bargaining position by conditioning its return on receiving preliminary concessions from its opponents as well as determining the agenda so that it has the upper hand.
  • Pyongyang would signal its willingness to resume talks while simultaneously rejecting US’ preconditions by characterising them as insufficient.
  • This puts Washington on the defensive and susceptible to additional pressure from China and sometimes South Korea (in case of Left-leaning governments).

Taking advantage through the crisis:

  • Pyongyang would intentionally escalate the crisis to define negotiating parameters and extract maximum benefits for minimum concessions.
  • Its brinkmanship would eventually raise the need for a deal for opponents. North Korea would then slow down the negotiating process until opponents are willing to meet its terms and would create a parallel crisis to divert attention from the halted negotiation.
  • Thus, the intentional escalation of tensions is the opportunity for North Korea, rather than a reaction to the US’ actions.
  • These raised tensions will also create differences among North Korea’s opponents, which Pyongyang would exploit.
  • It either directly pressures Washington or indirectly through its allies by raised escalations to gain an advantage.

Carrot and stick policy

  • North Korea uses a combination of threats and assurances to garner diplomatic and economic backing from China, Russia and South Korea by raising the spectre of deteriorating security situation.
  • This makes it difficult for the US to gain Chinese and Russian support for imposing sanctions as Pyongyang’s reasonableness would look encouraging for Beijing and Moscow,

Ambitious demands during negotiations:

Pyongyang often lists out ambitious demands during its diplomatic outreach, which include:

  • Military: End US-South Korea military exercise, remove the US troops from South Korea, abrogate bilateral defence alliance between the US and South Korea, cancel the US’ extended deterrence guarantee and worldwide dismantlement of all US nuclear weapons.
  • Political: Establishment of formal diplomatic ties with the US, signing of the peace treaty to end the Korean war and stop the action by the UN Commission of Inquiry report on North Korean human rights abuses
  • Law enforcement: Removal of sanctions by the UN, the US and EU.
  • Societal: Restrictions on South Korea’s constitutionally protected freedom of speech and assembly, including suppression of publications of any articles and demonstrations against Pyongyang

What are the recent initiatives undertaken by the US and South Korea to improve relations with DPRK?

  • The current South Korean President Moon Jae-in, since his coming to power, sought to improve the relationship of his country with Pyongyang as well as help ease the escalated tensions between the US and North Korea.
  • Throughout the fall of 2017, both North Korea and the US diplomatic spat was at escalated levels, with Trump even considering the possibility of obliterating North Korea.
  • By early 2018, North Korea decided to join the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
  • This resulted in Trump shifting gears. In June 2018, for the first time in North Korea-US relations, both countries’ top leaders met face-to-face at Singapore, leading to Trump downplaying on the issue of North Korea’s provocations by arguing that Kim would ultimately conclude the nuclear deal with the US.
  • Singapore Summit resulted in a radical shift in Trump’s approach towards North Korea, with him even supporting the country’s missile tests.
  • The second US-North Korea summit was held in Hanoi, Vietnam in February 2019.
  • Later, in June 2019, both leaders met at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the first such meeting since 2007, which concluded with a common goal of realising complete denuclearisation of Korean Peninsula.
  • After this, North Korea sought to ease nuclear tensions by declaring a halt to all nuclear and ICBM tests and closing down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
  • Despite these meetings in 2018 and 2019, neither Moon nor Trump was able to achieve a breakthrough with North Korea.
  • It has only led to differences in the relationship between the US and its allies due to Trump’s willingness to prefer closer ties with North Korea to the interests of Japan and South Korea.
  • Yet, the South Korean government pushed for close US-North Korea ties to ensure peace in the Korean peninsula.
  • Seoul’s strategy involved arms control measures and confident-building measures (CBMs) as progress was made in denuclearisation and peace talks.
  • Despite these efforts from South Korean side, there has been a significant mismatch between optimistic sentiments and the Peninsula’s unchanging security landscape as Pyongyang made no effort to reduce its military forces or revise its military doctrine.
  • In the meantime, Pyongyang tried to sell hopes of a breakthrough in the US-North Korea talks while continuing to upgrade its nuclear arsenal.
  • In the latter half of 2019, North Korea, after significant progress in its nuclear weapons development, showed little interest in pursuing genuine denuclearisation talks with the US.
  • Due to this, in September 2019, Seoul was forced to admit the failure in its talks with Pyongyang for the first time during Moon’s tenure.

Issues faced by US-South Korea relations:

  • There is a significant need for Seoul and Washington to cooperate to address this crisis.
  • Yet, there is growing differences between the two allies.
  • Trump is more contradictory in his approach in the Korean Peninsula than any of his predecessors.
  • He constantly pressured South Korea to pay more for stationing US troops on the peninsula, consistently vilifying US-ROK joint military exercises as too expensive and threatening, and second-guessing the US intelligence community.
  • Seoul, because of its differences and unpredictability of Washington, is forced to increase its defence budget despite the earlier proposal of reducing its arms build-up.
  • Other issues faced by South Korea is the need to balance the desire for greater security autonomy, maximising defence capabilities in relations with North Korea in conjunction with the US, minimising growing political and military pressures from China and managing its brittle but critical relationship with Japan.
  • The increased Chinese aggression and growing differences between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo have made this extremely difficult in recent years.

What is the recent crisis in the Peninsula?

  • North Korea’s recent blowing up of joint liaison office on the border with South Korea and threatening to deploy troops along the DMZ amid the pandemic has intensified the crisis to a completely new level.
  • The US, during this time, is facing its own domestic issue of having the largest number of COVID-19 cases, economic crisis and anti-racism protests.
  • The latest crisis in the Korean Peninsula was triggered by anti-North defector groups that sent out propaganda leaflets via balloons across the DMZ.
  • When the South refused to track them down, Pyongyang severed hotlines and demolished the liaison office.
  • It is also planning to deploy troops along the border.
  • This risks affecting the little that was achieved through negotiations over the past two years.
  • South Korean government responded to this crisis by charging the defector groups.
  • However, this is unlikely to ease the tensions in the peninsula, as the real problem is the stall in the US-North Korea talks.
  • It is most likely that Pyongyang is using this present crisis to garner US’ attention.
  • Pyongyang labelled the first-ever face-to-face meeting between Trump and Kim as “empty promise” and accused Washington of hypocrisy during the second anniversary of the historic summit.
  • The North Korean government likely has more provocation in store so that Trump is not distracted by domestic politics.
  • Recently, the US government stated that it is committed to dialogue and open to a “flexible approach to reach a balanced agreement”.

What can be the way forward?

  • Armed retaliation through a “surgical strike” against key North Korean nuclear facilities at Yongbyon could be possible with minimum causalities.
  • However, there is also the possibility of Pyongyang responding with retaliation against Seoul, which would result in the wrecking of the entire city in a matter of hours.
  • It could also respond by infiltrating and destroying critical infrastructure in the South.
  • Thus, military action against North Korea should be the last alternative.
  • The main rationale behind Kim Jong-un increased focus on nuclear arsenal is his fear of external aggression.
  • There is a need to shift the balance of power between Pyongyang and Seoul.
  • North Korea has long had a smaller population than that of South Korea.
  • In the early 1970s, the two Korea had almost the same per capita GDP.
  • Today, however, South Korea has roughly 23 times more GDP. It also has better connectivity infrastructure than North Korea.
  • The average South Korean lives more than a decade longer than his North Korean counterpart does.
  • Though North Korea has a larger army than the South, it is overshadowed by the better technological advancement of the latter.
  • North Korea, in short, is much weaker than the South and other developed countries in aspects other than its nuclear capability.
  • Additionally, its close allies – Russia and China – have improved economic relationship with South Korea.
  • South Korea is now China’s fourth-largest trading partner and North Korea is not even it the top 10 of this list.
  • North Korea’s geopolitical position has only worsened because of a lack of support from either of its top allies. Both of them supported sanctions against it in response to nuclear tests.
  • There is less possibility of North Korea using nuclear weapons, its only trump card, as Kim Jong-un is not a suicidal type.
  • The current issue with North Korea’s possession of the nuclear weapon is that, since it became economically isolated and desperate, there is a high possibility of the country selling its nuclear technology to actors even worse than itself.
  • This should not be allowed to happen.
  • The US leaving the peninsula is out of option as Japan and South Korea would most likely be tempted to develop their own nuclear arsenal due to the fear of China and North Korea’s aggression.
  • Instead of leaving the peninsula, the US and its allies should make efforts to ensure the deployment of Chinese and Russian troops on the North Korean Soil by gaining Pyongyang’s trust so that these countries can act as a balance to US threat.
  • This would reduce the North Korean regime’s insecurity and prevent any abrupt military escalation.
  • This would eventually enable reducing of the nuclear arsenal and halt further testing in the region.
  • The situation in the North Korean economy could also be improved if Russian and Chinese troops are stationed in the region as the sanctions can be lifted and economic trade can be developed.
  • However, the stationing of the Russian and Chinese troops could prove to be difficult, as Pyongyang would fear a breach in its sovereignty by foreign powers. It would also prolong the North Korean regime.
  • However, it could be achieved as Pyongyang does not have any other means to defend itself in case of US’ armed response.
  • It would pave the way for a better relationship between North and South – allowing for South Korea’s economic and cultural appeal eat away North Korea’s totalitarianism from within.
  • For this strategy to work, a multilateral solution is critical as all of North Korea’s neighbours have a major stake in the outcome.
  • The multilateral alliance of North Korea’s neighbours, the EU and the US is vital for promoting better economic relationship with North Korea.
  • Multilateral security mechanism will also be required to oversee the transition of a more peaceful order in and around the Korean Peninsula.
  • Japan can, not only help in the economic front but also the reunification of families of its abducted citizens.
  • A strategy of engaging North Korea in programmes that are important to it in return for substantial, not just token, reciprocity is vital to prevent Pyongyang from furthering its nuclear testing.
  • If this fails, there will be a continued repetition of the crisis with no end in sight.


Isolation of countries through sanctions has rarely proven to be a successful countermeasure to address rogue nations’ adventurous policies as these countries are cornered and forced to retaliate in an escalated manner that could only worsen the crisis. Cooperation among all adversaries is vital to bring North Korea back to the global interaction and halt the crisis altogether.

Practice question for mains:

What are the possible solutions that exist for the crisis in Korean Peninsula? (250 words)

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