Skip to main content

Korea policy roundtable

News, speeches and media


Speaker: Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson

Thank you Matthew.

I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present and I extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here today.

It's a pleasure to be invited to open this important policy roundtable on the Korean Peninsula.

When the roundtable was first mooted, in April last year, the North Korean question was, without doubt, one of the most significant foreign policy issues the world faced.

That was for good reason:

North Korea's continued refusal to comply with the will of the international community to end its missile and nuclear programs, and the continued threat of proliferation the DPRK's military programs represented, had put it there.

Now, eleven months later, with President Trump expected to meet with Kim Jong-un in less than eight weeks, it's fair to say that the importance of this question has risen still further.

After decades simmering away, with irregular flashpoints lifting the temperature from time to time, the Korea question has now come close to the boil.

So, well done to Brendan Taylor, Daewon Ohn and Andrew O'Neill for having the prescience to bring such a first class field of thinkers and analysts here today and Brisbane on Wednesday, to take a deeper look into this crucial topic.

The Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs – and the Australian National University more broadly – has a deserved reputation for its scholarship in international policy, and I'm sure your discussions today and in Brisbane on Wednesday will build on that legacy.

I'm pleased that DFAT has been able to support this event through the Australia-Korea Foundation and I acknowledge the foresight of the AKF Board for recognising the value of supporting this policy roundtable.

North Korea in 2018

In 2018, at a time of profound change in the international order, North Korea sits on a key historical, ideological and military fault line in global affairs.

North Korea's birth was one of the defining acts of the post-war international order, the state's genesis coming immediately with the surrender of Tokyo in 1945, enshrined as it was within US General Order 1.

Its adolescence – the tumult of the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 – came at one of the sharpest points of the Cold War, with the United States on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and China on the other, busy hard-wiring the contours of what would be their engagement for decades to come.

But as a relic of what might also be called the age of ideology, North Korea has outlived its own era.

The world around North Korea has changed profoundly in the decades since the armistice was signed in 1953.

Global communism, having run the sharpest of lines through Europe, North and Southeast Asia for several decades, lost sway in the 1990s in favour of an international order based in large degree on market principles.

The economic divide between the developed and developing worlds, so stark in 1953, as the earlier and much longer colonial phase of history was losing its grip, has been dramatically reduced, with prosperity and peaceful development increasingly shared - at least to some degree - by nations all across our Indo-Pacific region.

China's unprecedented progress is the prominent symbol of that change, but of course as everyone here knows it is part of a much broader story which started with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong - the newly industrialising economies or NIEs as we used to call them - and has since played out across North, South and Southeast Asia.

Yet six and a half decades – and two dynastic generations – on, the DPRK is still mired in its unique ideological prism, a mix of communism, militarism and hereditary succession.

That might not be a problem in itself, except that it manifests itself in actions by the regime that go against the express will of the international community.

North Korea maintains its narrow, embittered perspective on the world – a world it sees as a threat.

The United Nations has moved, over many years, to try to change North Korea's course, operating with a rare unanimity of purpose.

The role of China, in particular, has been instrumental in sharpening the determination of the Security Council to constrict funds for Pyongyang's weapons programs.

But the DPRK's leaders have clung to their out-dated, obsessively military perspective on the world – a fact that has devastating consequences for the lives of everyday North Koreans.

North Korea – a case study of broken deals and illegal behaviour

For more than three decades, North Korea has been following a path of conflict with the international community, doggedly developing weapons of mass destruction devoid of any focus on prosperity, growth and human dignity.

You all know as well as I do the long history of North Korea's failure to abide by commitments to cease its missile and nuclear development programs.

A repeating pattern of North Korea misbehaviour means we must remain sceptical about North Korea's intentions in agreeing to leader-level talks, even as we seek to test the viability of a diplomatic pathway out of this looming crisis.

In 1985 under Kim Il-sung North Korea agreed to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but from the very beginning, it failed to abide by safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency, hiding its true intentions to continue to develop a nuclear weapon capability.

In 1993 Pyongyang refused IAEA demands to inspect several sites, threatened to withdraw from the NPT, and launched a number of missiles without the required pre-notification to the international community. This included the first launch of a missile in the direction of Japan.

In 1994, with Kim Jong-il and President Clinton in power, the United States and North Korea came to an agreement to prevent North Korea quitting the NPT.

In exchange for energy aid, Pyongyang agreed to freeze and dismantle its plutonium program.

However, Pyongyang continued to develop missile technologies and in 2002, with George W. Bush in power, the US-North Korea agreement fell apart.

North Korea admitted it was pursuing a highly enriched uranium program, expelled IAEA inspectors and restarted the Yongbyon nuclear facilities.

After years of difficult negotiations, in September 2005, North Korea agreed, as part of Six Party Talks, to abandon nuclear weapons and to return to the NPT.

But Pyongyang abandoned the deal, continued ballistic missile tests, and in October 2006 conducted its first nuclear test, giving North Korea the dubious honour – one it still holds – of being the only country to detonate a nuclear weapon in the 21st Century.

After returning to Six Party Talks, North Korea agreed in February 2007 to shutdown, seal, and ultimately dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear facilities and readmit IAEA inspectors in exchange for fuel oil.

North Korea deliberately obstructed IAEA and US efforts to disable the Yongbyon facilities.

North Korea recommenced its ballistic missile tests and in April 2009 withdrew from the Six Party Talks, expelled IAEA inspectors and US nuclear experts and announced it would restore the Yongbyon facilities.

Six Party Talks have never resumed.

Since Kim Jong-un assumed power, we have seen an ongoing escalation of threats. North Korea has continued nuclear tests, is developing increasingly sophisticated and longer-range ballistic missile technology and has demonstrated its cyber capability. These actions have been coupled with increasingly strong belligerent rhetoric.

And so it goes on – a litany of broken deals and ignored international commitments in which the North continues to set itself against the expectations of the global community.

Global and regional security in the Indo-Pacific

Over the past year, as North Korea's missile and nuclear programs begin to pose a credible threat to continental America, the risk of conflict has grown.

We are dangerously close to the point where the United States could decide that the costs of not acting militarily against North Korea's nuclear program outweigh the very real costs of intervention.

President Trump has said that all options are on the table.

US concerns about the gravity of the strategic threat posed by a nuclear-capable North Korea are real. We do take them seriously.

And there is always the danger of a miscalculation or misstep, leading to hasty retaliation and unplanned escalation.

That is why we are such strong advocates of ensuring that diplomatic efforts and sanctions succeed. The collective application of economic pressure - "maximum pressure" - on North Korea provides the best chance of slowing its weapons programs and causing it to choose negotiations, and perhaps the only alternative to something far worse.

The history of failed negotiations on the Peninsula is disturbing. It would be tempting to dismiss out of hand this latest apparent opening for talks.

But the stakes are now too high for that. A conflict on the Peninsula would have terrible consequences for the people of the Korean Peninsula. It would also be grave for the wider region and beyond, particularly given the risk of it escalating to use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

And the circumstances are different.

The unprecedented unity of the international system represented through eleven successive UN Security Council Resolutions has resulted in a strengthened and effective pressure campaign. This has been building steadily over several years and is now possibly substantial enough to cause North Korea to seek at least relief, if not a different outcome to the track it had been on.

North Korea has never before been as isolated. And there is the prospect of further pressure being applied, including if further measures are authorised to clamp down on sanctions leakage at sea. Our objective has been to change Pyongyang's basic calculus that nuclear weapons would guarantee the survival of the regime and the dynasty. We may be getting closer to the point where Pyongyang realises that the opposite may be the case, that it its pursuit of this capability is making it less secure.

Pyongyang's behaviour is threatening to the region and fundamentally corrosive of international non-proliferation norms embodied in the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. These norms have been applied specifically to North Korea through UN Security Council Resolutions.

The global non-proliferation architecture, while not perfect, has over the decades imposed largely effective restraints on the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons. It is of utmost importance that these constraints be maintained to the extent possible, and that severe costs be imposed on any who choose to circumvent them.

That is why we must sustain maximum pressure on Pyongyang. It is why Australia places so much importance on sanctions being fully implemented and properly enforced.

The Government has implemented the international sanctions into Australian law, and supplemented them with our own autonomous sanctions that target individuals and entities that have acted to circumvent UN measures. In this way, we with our partners are helping sustain maximum pressure, in support of continued stability and peace in our region.


Ladies and gentlemen, what happens in the weeks and months ahead with respect to the North Korean situation is crucially important to the Indo-Pacific and the world.

Australia remains supportive of dialogue, if it leads towards concrete steps towards denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

I wish you clear heads as you discuss the full range of issues today.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 27 March 2018
Back to top