No government yet for Germany. Mugabe quits. US against Australian scientist's involvement in nuclear weapons program. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump returns North Korea to terror list

People celebrate in Harare, Zimbabwe, after President Robert Mugabe resigned this week.
People celebrate in Harare, Zimbabwe, after President Robert Mugabe resigned this week.
Credit: REUTERS / Philimon Bulawayo

Donald Trump made the prospect of talks with North Korea even more unlikely this week, when his administration relisted the country among the states said to be sponsoring terrorism,  joining Sudan, Iran and Syria on the United States blacklist.

“Should have happened a long time ago. Should have happened years ago,” Trump said, claiming North Korea had “repeatedly” sponsored acts of terrorism, including “assassinations on foreign soil”. The alleged acts of terrorism were not listed. Even George W. Bush, who had earlier included North Korea in his perceived “Axis of Evil”, took the country off the terrorism-sponsor list in 2008, presumably because its bad behaviour did not include random mass murder.

The notable assassination in recent times was the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur with VX nerve agent in February by two apparent dupes now standing trial. While luridly vicious, this hardly fits the standard definition of terrorism.

Still, Trump thinks his move will encourage Kim Jong-un to talk. “This designation will impose further sanctions and penalties on North Korea ... and supports our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the murderous regime,” Trump said. Malcolm Turnbull, who has declared Australia “joined at the hip” with the US on such issues, agreed. It “mirrors the determination of the international community on bringing North Korea back to its senses,” he said.

For its part, North Korea was keeping up the rhetorical return fire. “The hideous crimes committed by the lunatic president of the US are a blatant challenge to the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK,” an article in its Rodong Sinmun (“Workers’ Newspaper”) said on Tuesday.

Kim Jong-un is so far failing to wilt under the sanctions applied by the United Nations Security Council, with the South Koreans reporting that his regime seems to be preparing more missile tests and that satellite images show his shipbuilders hard at work on a submarine fitted with ballistic-missile launch tubes. This latest empty gesture can be guaranteed to stiffen Kim’s resolve to get a working nuclear deterrent.

Having successfully schmoozed Trump on his Beijing visit this month, China is resisting demands to shut down oil supplies to North Korea. Together with Russia, it’s still pushing a plan to freeze warlike activity on both sides of the Korean divide, and start talking about longer-term security guarantees and economic linkages. 

Fallen Angela

Eerie parallels this week in Germany to the collapse of the Weimar republic in 1933. For the first time since then, the parties in the federal parliament have been unable to put together a majority and form a government.

There is no Nazi party slavering to be entrusted with power this time, but the postwar centrist rivals have been losing votes to the fringes, with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the former communists in Die Linke getting a quarter of the votes in the federal elections two months ago.

With 33 per cent of the vote, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been trying to cobble together an unlikely coalition between her Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) on one side and the Greens on the other. It was hard going, and late on Sunday night the FDP’s Christian Lindner walked out of discussions. There were still too many open issues and conflicting goals, and “no common basis for trust”, he declared.

“It is better not to rule than to rule wrongly,” Lindner later tweeted. That seems to be the leitmotif in Germany these days. In September, the Social Democrats ended up with their worst vote in the postwar era as thanks for their previous four-year grand coalition with Merkel. The Free Democrats were out of the Bundestag completely for four years from 2013 following their coalition with her. 

What now? Under the constitution, it’s not up to the chancellor to call a fresh election. Merkel says that would be better than minority government, but she’s bluffing. Another poll would probably see the AfD eat even more of the Christian Democrat vote. The president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who can dissolve the parliament after numerous tries to form a government, says Germany isn’t close to calling new elections and urges more intensive coalition talks. One wilder possibility is for the Christian Democrats to lure the Social Democrats back under a new chancellor.

Whatever happens, Merkel is a greatly weakened leader and the mood is “Germany First” when many see a strong German–French partnership facing down the far-right surge in eastern Europe and the Russian challenge, dealing with the calamitous Brexit, handling the refugee surges, and replacing cheap European Central Bank credit with investment as the way to rescue the southern Europeans from financial collapse.

Mugabe blinks first

It took the beginning of impeachment proceedings in Zimbabwe’s parliament for Robert Mugabe to resign, as he finally did on Tuesday. Now it’s a question of whether the vicious and corrupt political machine he constructed will be dismantled or simply have a new driver.

We will get some clues to that when Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice-president whose sacking on November 6 set off the power play, and who replaced Mugabe as head of the ruling Zanu-PF party on Sunday, chooses the key members of his interim government ahead of elections likely to be held mid-next year.

Mnangagwa, 75, is not exactly a new broom. He was one of the enforcers in Mugabe’s 37 years in power as chief of intelligence and security, a role that included deploying goons against opposition candidates in previous elections. Way back, he played a big role in the sweep by North Korean-trained troops in Zimbabwe’s army in Matabeleland that killed some 20,000 civilians among a tribe supporting a Mugabe rival. To shake off the Mugabe taint, Mnangagwa would need to appoint economic experts and figures from opposition ranks, and show they are not just ornaments but decision-makers.

Not revealed yet are any deals with Mugabe and his wife, Grace, that let them retain their vast farmland and other property holdings in Zimbabwe itself, as well as those in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. This may have been the final inducement for him to resign.

US forces don’t give the nod

Speaking of nuclear deterrence, it appears the US has worries about Australia going nuclear, and wants to block us from gaining dangerous knowledge about how to make a bomb.

This seems to be the conclusion from a report in London’s Sunday Times last weekend that a scientist with dual British-Australian citizenship has been barred from involvement in the British nuclear weapons program because of his Australian passport.

Hugh Durrant-Whyte, a British-born robotics expert, got his Australian citizenship while a professor for many years at Sydney University. In April this year, he was appointed chief scientific adviser in the British Ministry of Defence.

However, when it came to supervising the weapons program, which relies on US-made Trident missiles, the Americans objected on the grounds that Australia was not a nuclear weapons state. It would apparently be a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to share that knowledge with us, even though we shelter under the US nuclear umbrella and have a fair amount of our own know-how about uranium enrichment. Durrant-Whyte’s nuclear weapon responsibilities have been transferred to the Foreign Office, the newspaper reported.


[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2017 as "Trump returns North Korea to terror list".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.