Donald Trump's redesignation of North Korea as a "state sponsor of terrorism" was predictable, even though it has not "repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism" since it was taken off the US State Department list in 2008. Designation will result in strict unilateral sanctions and will also make it difficult for other countries to deal with North Korea.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is due soon to address a forum on the topic of "North Korea: our strategic challenge". Given the Turnbull government's past rhetoric, and the Prime Minister's more recent assertions about the regime's criminal nature, it seems likely the address will not be directed at trying to understand North Korea's security concerns.
To appreciate the North's concerns, we need to go back to the Korean armistice agreement signed in 1953 by US Army Lieutenant-General William Harrison Jnr (representing the United Nations), North Korean General Nam Il and an unidentified commander of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army. The agreement was to ensure "a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved".
The agreement also recommended that within three months of being signed, there should be negotiations to settle the questions of withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea and the peaceful settlement of the Korean question. (The North interpreted this to mean "unification with the southern part of our country".)
Sixty-four years later, the political issues remain unresolved and US forces are still in South Korea.
The armistice agreement also mandated that neither side introduce new weapons into Korea, other than piece-for-piece replacements of equipment. However, in January 1958, against the wishes of its UN allies, the US deployed nuclear-capable Honest John rockets and 280-millimetre atomic cannons to the South, followed by atomic-demolition munitions and nuclear-armed Matador cruise missiles able to reach China and the Soviet far east. (The US said North Korea had itself introduced new weapons, but did not substantiate this claim.)
In 1963, North Korea asked the Soviet Union and China for help in developing nuclear weapons to safeguard its security, but they declined – although the Soviets did provide a research reactor. The North subsequently began its own pathway nuclear program, first through research and then through its nuclear reactor development program at Yongbyon.
In 1985, North Korea became a party to the non-proliferation treaty and, in 1992, its treaty safeguards agreement entered into force. In 1993, after it was accused of not complying with International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, it announced it would withdraw from the treaty.
In 1994, the US and North Korea signed the "agreed framework", the main objectives of which were to: keep the North within the treaty; replace the North's indigenous graphite-moderated reactors (and stop covert enrichment) with two proliferation-resistant 1000-megawatt-electric light-water reactor power plants; and work towards normalising relations.
Soon after the agreement was signed, the US Republican Party, which opposed the agreement, gained control of Congress. Even so, American nuclear engineers were in North Korea until 2002. Only when it became clear that the US was not going to honour its commitment to provide the promised two light-water reactors did North Korea expel the Americans, renounce the treaty and its obligations, and resume its nuclear weapons program.
Meanwhile, in 1991, with the end of the Cold War, the US withdrew its South Korea-based nuclear weapons. However, annual US and South Korean military exercises continued and are regarded by the North as provocative and threatening. US Navy vessels taking part in the exercises are potentially equipped with nuclear weapons, and nuclear-capable strategic bombers fly over the South to reaffirm the US's "nuclear umbrella" over South Korea.
On February 10, 2005, North Korea announced it had manufactured nuclear weapons as a "nuclear deterrent for self-defence", and, in 2006, conducted its first nuclear test. It has since conducted five more.
US analysts estimate the North could have as many as 60 nuclear weapons, although this would be a high-end estimate. Independent experts believe it has enough uranium to produce six new nuclear weapons a year. It is unknown whether they can be sufficiently miniaturised and ruggedised to mount on a missile, but that development cannot be far off for its shorter-range systems.
The North has autonomously developed an impressive array of ballistic missiles: the Rodong-1 or Nodong, with a short-range; the Pukguksong-1 (submarine-launched); the Pukguksong-2 (intermediate range); the Hwasong-10 or Musudan (intermediate); the Hwasong-12 (intermediate); and the Hwasong-14 (inter-continental). It believes it can only ultimately guarantee its national security if it has the means to strike US territory with nuclear weapons. The new road-mobile Hwasong-14 has an estimated range of 6500-8000 kilometres, bringing Alaska and possibly Hawaii within range.
The US President's toned-down comments about Kim Jong-un after his recent visit to East Asia seem to reflect a better appreciation of the dangers of pushing North Korea to the point where it feels sufficiently threatened to lash out with nuclear weapons against South Korea or the US.
Noting the record of broken commitments by both the US and North Korea since 1953, Australia should be cautious about getting too closely behind the US in politically shirt-fronting the North's regime. We need to think carefully about more constructive options than sanctions or pressing China to pull Jong-un into line.
The main bilateral issue between Australia and North Korea should be recovering our 42 missing-in-action personnel from the Korean War.
This article was first published in Fairfax Media on Friday 24 November, 2017.