By James O’Neill

North Korea recently successfully tested an ICBM capable of reaching Alaska, possibly the northwestern United States, and northern Australia. This has sparkled immediate reactions, ranging from direct threats of unilateral military action (US) to demands that China should “do more” to rein in its unruly neighbour (Australia).

In Australia, the usual hawkish voices have been raised, demanding that Australia needs to have a missile defence system to “protect” Australia. As is almost invariably the case with western reactions to actions by the North Koreans, the comments and demands are devoid of any historical context, ignoring as they do the role of the western powers in creating and sustaining the conditions for crisis. They are also unrealistic in their view of how the present crisis might be resolved, either making demands as to what third parties such as China “must do”, or expecting the North Koreans to capitulate.

The Historical Context

The two Koreas were for centuries one country, with a common language and culture. From 1910 to 1945 they were a colony of Japan which ended with the surrender of Japan following the dropping of the second atomic bomb by the Americans on Nagasaki in August 1945.

Immediately prior to the end of the war the United States had unilaterally decided to cut Korea into two parts at the 38th latitude parallel. Japanese forces in the northern sector surrendered to the Soviet Union, and to the Americans in the south. Nationwide elections for a reunified Korea were scheduled to be held in 1948. Neither side trusted the other, so those elections were never held.

The Americans appointed Syngman Rhee as their puppet in the south, and the Soviets appointed Kim il-Sung as their man in the north. They then withdrew from North Korea. Kim invaded the south in 1950 as an attempt to forcibly reunify the country under his rule. That invasion turned into the Korean War, which lasted three years and killed more than three million Koreans. All of the cities and towns in the north were bombed into rubble. The war ended in a ceasefire with the original status quo intact. No peace treaty has ever been signed.

One of the many festering sores left by the ceasefire was the maritime boundary between the two States. Under international maritime law, a maritime boundary would normally follow a linear extension of the land boundary, in this case the 38th parallel.

The UN Command (i.e. the Americans) instead drew the boundary so that it turns north and runs parallel to the North Korean coast. This has the effect of denying North Korea a 200km exclusive economic zone and the benefits that would flow from that. There have been regular military incidents within that 200km zone that would otherwise have been avoided but for the way in which the boundary line was drawn. No international body recognises the legitimacy of that artificial line. Its existence however is studiously ignored by the western media and with it the legitimacy of the North Korean objections.

The second major historical development relevant to the present crisis is North Korea’s relationship to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). North Korea had signed the treaty in 1985, and withdrew in January 2003. The circumstances of both the signing and the withdrawal are highly relevant to the present crisis.

In the 1980s North Korea had a major problem meeting its basic energy requirements from existing resources, mainly hydroelectric power. The solution to its problem lay in developing energy derived from low enriched nuclear power plants (LWR). North Korea lacked the technical expertise to develop such plants so they sought the assistance of western States with the necessary expertise, including France, Canada and Sweden. This proved impossible because of the constraints imposed by the US Coordinating Committee for Export Control to Communist Areas (COCOM).

North Korea then turned to the Soviet Union, which while technically inferior to western technology at the time was nonetheless willing and able to provide the plants. The Soviet Union however, made it a condition of such assistance that North Korea signs both the NPT and also sign safeguard agreements with the IAEA, which provided for inspections among other safeguards. North Korea signed those two treaties in December 1985.

Notwithstanding the signing of these two agreements, North Korea was then subjected to constant pressure from the United States, including holding nuclear war games with South Korea (Operation Team Spirit) and locating nuclear weapons on South Korean soil.

In response to this pressure, North Korea proposed that the US withdraw nuclear weapons from South Korea, cease making nuclear threats against the North, and enter multilateral safeguard agreements, which would provide for simultaneous inspections of both sides. The US ignored this request.

A breakthrough came in January 1991 when the administration of George H.W. Bush announced that the US guarantee of not using nuclear weapons applied to all countries signatory to the NPT. In September 1991 further progress was made when Bush announced that nuclear weapons would be withdrawn from all overseas US bases.

Further progress again was made in June 1993 (under the Clinton administration) when, after several rounds of bilateral negotiations, a joint statement was issued in which the US promised not to threaten force, including nuclear weapons; to respect North Korean sovereignty; and refrain from interference in North Korean internal affairs. A further North Korea-United States Agreed Framework was signed on 21 October 1994. This agreement pledged to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula. That never happened. Under Article 3 of the Joint Framework, the United States was committed to giving formal assurances against the use or threat of nuclear weapons.

Instead of giving those assurances however, the United States continued to build up its armed forces in South Korea and conducted regular military war exercises aimed at North Korea. A US plan formulated in 1993, entitled ‘New Operation Plan 5027’ provided for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against North Korea. In February 1997 the US moved its stockpile of depleted uranium shells from Okinawa to South Korea. In January 1999 the US Secretary of Defence and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, following a visit to South Korea issued a statement in which they stated that “North Korea remains a constant threat to US national interests, and that the US would strongly retaliate against North Korea with nuclear weapons and all other means in the case of an emergency.”

The new Bush administration labeled North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil” in Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2002. North Korea was specifically listed as a target for pre-emptive nuclear attack. North Korea was one of seven countries on that list, the others being Russia, China, Syria, Libya, Iran and Iraq. Small tactical nuclear weapons were to be developed for that purpose.

Recent Events

In the light of that history, and bearing in mind what has happened to Iraq, Libya and Syria since that policy was formulated, it is hardly surprising that North Korea had no motive to remain as a party to the NPT, and every motive to take such steps as it thought necessary in defence of its own sovereignty.

Operation Team Spirit has undergone a number of name changes, but the policy and the actions remain the same. As recently as earlier this month (July 2017) the United States and South Korea carried out military exercises at sea, in the air and on land. The exercises included flying nuclear-armed bombers in close proximity to North Korean territorial waters.

The US has also installed the THAAD missile system in South Korea, ostensibly as part of South Korea’s ‘defence’ although manifestly capable of offensive strikes against not only North Korea but also Russia and China. The Chinese government in particular has been strongly voicing its opposition to the deployment of the THAAD missiles.

Australian Prime Minister Turnbull claims he ‘demanded’ China use its influence to “rein in” North Korea when he spoke with President Xi at the recent G20 meeting. Such claims are impossible to verify, but they would be more convincing if Turnbull was equally adamant in demanding that the US “rein in” its constantly aggressive and provocative behaviour.

Even without atomic weapons North Korea has the means to wreak devastation upon South Korea and other nations in the region such as Japan. It has not done so for the very good reason that any such conduct would invite instant and massive retaliation. As obnoxious and difficult as the present North Korean regime may be, they are neither stupid nor suicidal.

It should be obvious that the only solution likely to work is a diplomatic one. Following a joint meeting in Moscow earlier this month, Presidents Putin and Xi proposed a “joint freeze” solution under which North Korea would cease its nuclear and ballistic missile testing in exchange for a cessation of conventional military exercises by the US and South Korea. This would be followed by the resumption of multilateral talks involving China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia and the United States.

Both China and Russia had previously imposed sanctions on North Korea and worked together in recent months to co-ordinate their approach to North Korea. Whilst avoiding a general condemnation of the North Korean regime, they have sought to emphasize that a defusing of the crisis is in North Korea’s economic and political self-interest.

That the Americans should immediately reject even those modest proposals for a negotiated settlement should not be surprising. It is entirely consistent with the historical pattern of conduct outlined above, where what commitments the US did enter into were immediately undermined by its own behaviour.

It cannot be in anybody’s interest to have an outbreak of war. Unless there is a fundamental change in policy and approach, particularly but not only by the United States, a war seems more likely than not. All parties should seize upon the Russian and Chinese initiative as the representing the best opportunity of avoiding such an outcome.

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