North Korea Crisis
A severe North Korean crisis caused by a military provocation, internal political instability, or threatening nuclear weapons/ICBM-related activities
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 August 2015, North Korea fired rockets across the South Korean border, which is known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and South Korea retaliated with artillery fire. Other incitements include North Korea’s cyberattack on U.S.-based Sony Pictures in December 2014, and its 2010 shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, which is located around twelve miles south of the North Korean coast.
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. Other recent North Korean weapon tests include 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.
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.
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.
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.
- Timeline of North Korea’s Nuclear Program
- North Korea, Defying Warnings, Prepares to Launch Long-Range Rocket
February 2, 2016
- The Challenge of Predicting Future North Korean Nuclear Tests
Jack Liu, 38 North
February 1, 2016
- North Korea's Cyber Operations: Strategy and Responses
Jenny Jun, Scott LaFoy, and Ethan Sohn
- North Korea: Hold Kim Jong-Un to Account for Abuses
January 27, 2016
- Why is North Korea pursuing hydrogen power?
Katharine H. S. Moon
January 7, 2015
- 'A grave threat': why North Korea's claimed nuclear test is a cause for concern
Justin McCurry and Tom Phillips
January 6, 2016
- North Korea's Missile Programme
- The Korean Peninsula
- North Korea's H-bomb and the Costs of American Indifference
January 18, 2016
- The Logic of North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions
January 12, 2016
- North Korea’s Fourth Nuclear Test: How to Respond?
Scott A. Snyder
January 6, 2016
- Time for a New Approach in U.S.-North Korea Relations
Jongsoo Lee, guest blogger
December 31, 2015
- What to Do About North Korea
Burwell B. Bell III, Christopher R. Hill, Scott A. Snyder, and Jami Miscik
June 12, 2015
- Addressing North Korea’s Nuclear Problem
Scott A. Snyder
- Scott A. Snyder
Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
- Elizabeth C. Economy
C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
- Paul B. Stares
General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action
- Carla Anne Robbins
Adjunct Senior Fellow