President Obama is reported to have told President-elect Trump that his biggest foreign policy issue was likely to be North Korea. Testing a missile after Trump was sworn in, this prediction quickly became reality. The US believes that North Korea is rapidly developing the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the West Coast of the US. It already has several nuclear bombs. In US terms, such a development by an adversary will threaten not only its own national security but also that of its allies, Japan and South Korea. Its conventional army already poses an immediate threat to Seoul, the capital of South Korea and its industrial areas.
The Koreans from both North and South are a proud and dignified people who, like so many others, have been victims of imperialism. Korea was colonized and subjected to brutal rule, not for the first time in its history, by Japan from 1905 after the Russo-Japanese War. After the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in Europe, it joined the Pacific War against Japan in early August 1945, as agreed with the Allies. By late August, the Soviet Union had already driven out the Japanese from the North and had reached Pyongyang. The Allies quickly sought agreement with the Soviet Union on the stationing of their forces, each confined to positions north and south of the 38th parallel. Separate governments were eventually established in 1948, after several years of negotiations failed to agree on the terms of unification.
The Korean War took place between 1950 and 1953 after North Korea invaded South Korea. The United Nations, at the strong instigation of the US, condemned the aggression and voted to come to the aid of South Korea. Most of the troops were from the US and fighting took place over a three-year period during which China intervened. It is surmised that China’s action was in defence of its own security as it was afraid of invasion after the ‘UN’ troops crossed over the 38th parallel into the North. By 1953 there was a stalemate after several million deaths and an Armistice was eventually signed in 1953. The state of war was never formally ended.
Foreign troops were never permanently stationed in North Korea and no foreign country has a military base there. Its leaders are independent of Russia and China and had been of the Soviet Union. But the continued occupation of South Korea by United States forces had been a source of permanent tension in the peninsula and has generated great fear in North Korea of being invaded at any time. The regular war games between US and Korean forces, simulating various aspects of the invasion of North Korea, have been a source of permanent tension. The state of war, the occupation, US political domination of the South and regular war games are the sources of North Korea’s fears that causes it to pursue nuclear weapons.
The forward-looking Clinton Administration came to an Agreed Framework in 1992. North Korea, which had signed the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty, agreed to submit to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It also agreed to replace its nuclear power plant programme with plants which were resistant to nuclear proliferation. This was to be accompanied by a normalization of relations with the US over time. Progress, though slow, did occur, but the election of a Republican Congress in 1994, which was very suspicious, did not help.
During the presidential campaign in 2001 Candidate George W. Bush opposed the Agreed Framework. After he assumed office, the negotiations continued, but slowly unraveled because of suspicion by the Bush Administration that North Korea was surreptitiously continuing its nuclear programme.
Relations declined rapidly and the Bush Administration deliberately defaulted on the agreement. By early 2003 North Korea terminated the freeze on its plutonium-based facilities, expelled IAEA inspectors, left the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) and resumed reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium for weapons purposes. North Korea announced that it was developing a deterrent force in the face of US threats. Despite continuing multilateral negotiations which commenced during the Clinton Administration and continued under the Bush Administration, which included China and which upheld sanctions imposed by the UN after continuing the testing of nuclear weapons, North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear capacity.
The hostility of the Bush Administration set the US on the path on which it is today. It may well be that the North Koreans had been cheating on the Agreed Framework, but a mechanism of inspections by the IAEA was in place and could have been strengthened. However, after 9/11 the US was in no mood to engage with an ‘axis of evil’ country.
The Obama Administration sought a commitment to nuclear disarmament as a condition for talks. It never came. It appears that it never will. Now, President Trump has demanded that China should deliver a pliant North Korea. Observers have long doubted that China has that much influence. No one knows what happens next. What is known is that war will destroy North Korea, devastate South Korea, kill millions and create the danger of a world-wide conflagration.