North Korea Crisis

North Korea Crisis

A severe North Korean crisis caused by a military provocation, internal political instability, or threatening nuclear weapons/ICBM-related activities


Recent Developments

North Korea’s government has continued its aggressive and erratic behavior, as demonstrated by recent military and cyber provocations, and continued efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long range missiles. In addition to harming its own citizens, the country’s actions threaten the entire Korean peninsula.

In January 2016, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear weapons test, claiming to have detonated its first hydrogen bomb. However, analysis of the seismic readings and radiation left doubt as to what type of weapon was actually tested. Continuing to defy international sanctions, in February 2016 Pyongyang fired a long-range rocket to launch a satellite in to orbit, which was widely viewed as continued testing of intercontinental ballistic missile technologies and has further increased tensions. These actions have elicited serious concerns, with new U.S. sanctions passed in February 2016 following additional punitive measures taken by Japan and South Korea.

North Korea has continued to test weapons systems since 2012, including the launch of the long-range Unha-3 rocket in December 2012 and a nuclear test in February 2013. Pyongyang threatened a fourth test in November 2014, following the adoption of a resolution by the UN General Assembly condemning North Korean human rights abuses.

Other incitements include firing rockets across the South Korean border, known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), in August 2015 and North Korea’s cyberattack on U.S.-based Sony Pictures in December 2014, as well as its 2010 shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, which is located around twelve miles south of the North Korean coast.

Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s supreme leader, has undertaken efforts to consolidate his power by purging high-ranking officials, including his own family members. There are reportedly between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners detained in North Korea. 

Background

North Korea (officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is isolated, impoverished, and a proclaimed enemy of its southern neighbor—an important U.S. ally.

U.S. military involvement in the Korean peninsula has its roots in the Korean War of the early 1950s, in which the United States supported forces in the southern part of the peninsula against communist forces in the north, who were aided militarily by China and the Soviet Union. Today, the United States is committed to defending South Korea under the terms of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Republic of Korea. The United States has nearly 29,000 troops deployed in the Korean peninsula for that purpose. In addition to U.S. troops, many of South Korea’s 640,000 soldiers and North Korea’s 1.2 million soldiers are stationed near the DMZ, making it one of the most heavily armed borders in the world. 

In violation of UN Security Council resolutions, North Korea continues overt nuclear enrichment and long-range missile development efforts. Although the scope of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program remains uncertain, U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that it has enough plutonium to produce five nuclear weapons. 

Concerns

North Korea is a nuclear power with a complex relationship with China, and preventing both an interstate Korean war and a North Korean internal collapse are critical U.S. national security interests. Small-scale military and cyber provocations by North Korea pose significant risk as each incident carries with it the potential for widespread escalation

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