North Korean Crisis

North Korean Crisis

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


The risk of renewed conflict on the Korean peninsula remains high as a result of continuing efforts by North Korea to develop nuclear weapons and long range missiles in contravention of United Nations Security Council resolutions. North Korea launched the long-range Unha-3 rocket in December 2012 and conducted a third nuclear test in February 2013. Pyongyang threatened a fourth test in November 2014, following the adoption of a resolution condemning North Korean human rights abuses by the UN General Assembly. 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.

Further military provocations by North Korea that in the past have raised tensions on the peninsula, as when North Korea shelled Yeongyeong Island in 2010, are also a source of concern. The North-South border is one of the most heavily armed areas in the world—with 1.2 million North Korean and 640,000 South Korean soldiers—which increases the risk that localized incidents could escalate in dangerous ways. Under the terms of the US-ROK defense treaty, the United States is committed to defend South Korea and currently has 29,000 troops deployed there for that purpose. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s efforts to purge high-ranking officials, including his uncle, Jang Song-taek, has increased the potential for for political instability and unrest in the country. This too could escalate in dangerous ways that lead to military intervention by neighboring powers.

Background Information
Breaking News
Primary Sources
Latest CFR Analysis
Related CFR Experts