Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as President of North Korea in December 2011. Under his rule, the régime has remained closed to the rest of the world while increasing its anti-American rhetoric; threatened Washington and Tokyo (which supports a strong US stance); and generally destabilised the region, thereby affecting EU interests, given the volume of the Union’s trade with China, Japan and South Korea. In March 2013, a month after North Korea had conducted its third nuclear test, Kim announced the adoption of the ‘Byungjin line’: a policy of simultaneous economic and nuclear development. Three nuclear tests followed, with September 2017’s the most powerful thus far: Pyongyang claimed that was a miniaturised hydrogen bomb, capable of being launched through an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Pyongyang has also developed its own ICBM technology: in July and September 2017 it fired a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile over the north of Japan.
The international community has reacted by adopting UN-backed sanctions against Pyongyang, to push it to return to the negotiating table and to abandon its nuclear programme. The increased frequency of North Korean nuclear and missile tests has stirred growing hostile rhetoric between the regime and the Trump administration: Pyongyang has even threatened to fire missiles at the US military base on Guam in the Pacific. This war of words has side-lined South Korea, which is striving to find the right line in its relations with the North. Although China is South Korea’s main trading partner, it has recently undertaken retaliatory steps against Seoul’s business interests, on account of the ongoing deployment by the USA of a terminal high-altitude area defence (THAAD) system on South Korean territory. Beijing also accounts for 90 % of North Korea’s trade and is deemed to have decisive leverage for the survival of the Pyongyang regime. Together with Moscow, it has prevented the UN Security Council from adopting more severe sanctions against North Korea, but is now under pressure (especially from Washington) to adopt a full embargo on oil exports to the reclusive country. Seen from China’s perspective, the regime’s collapse may imply an allied buffer state on its border (China and North Korea’s Treaty of Mutual Assistance goes back to 1961) being substituted by a unified Korea, allied with the US. China and Russia advocate the ‘dual suspension’ of both North Korean tests and US military exercises in South Korea.