Navigating the myths of North Korean nukes

Missiles

North Korea is certainly difficult to deal with, but Australian interests would continue to be better served by dealing directly with North Korea and making our own realistic assessments, rather than adopting policy positions based on US concerns.

Donald Trump has adopted a more assertive posture towards North Korea after US domestic and allies' support for his strike on Syria. But the re-routing of the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group towards the Korean peninsula, and increasing political pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear warhead and intercontinental-ballistic-missile programs, will increase the potential for strategic miscalculation.

The commander of American and United Nations forces in Korea, General Vincent K. Brooks, warned Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in South Korea that Australia would soon be within range of a North Korean nuclear strike. Bishop said: "The assessment was that North Korea ... was now at a point of advanced technology when it came to ballistic missiles that were capable of carrying a single nuclear warhead, that it was an increasing security risk not only to the Korean peninsula but also to our region, including Australia."

However, the US general's claim seems misleading, given North Korea is believed to be years away from having an intercontinental missile with a nuclear warhead. Even if North Korea eventually gets to that point, it is highly unlikely Australia would be targeted because such a weapon would be intended to deter the United States, which would also be within range, from attacking North Korea.

We need to be cautious about accepting alarmist US assessments that are closely linked to supporting US policy positions, or justifying US military actions.

In 1981, while in Defence, I visited the US State Department and was castigated about Australia's lack of loyal support for the US position on "yellow rain". The US claimed Vietnam was dropping Soviet chemical weapons on the US's Vietnam War allies, the Montagnard tribal people. The US assessment was based on Montagnard refugee claims they had seen Vietnamese planes in the sky at the same time as yellow clouds, and that subsequently people had died from some form of poisoning.

These assertions were individually correct, but it later turned out the yellow clouds had been honeybees swarming and defecating, while the Montagnards who died had done so from eating buried rice that contained naturally occurring mycotoxins. (The US has not retracted its allegations, arguing that the issue has never been satisfactorily resolved.)

Another example was the US's glossy product Soviet Military Power, produced yearly until 1990, that made substantial claims about growing Soviet military capabilities, implying that the US was falling behind in the military balance. I later talked to American arms-control specialists who visited Soviet nuclear and missile facilities after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and they found many sites were not what they had been assessed to be, while most of the revolutionary new weapons and aircraft pictured in Soviet Military Power had never made it past the design stage due to a lack of funds.

For more recent times, I do not need to elaborate on the US's unproven claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

We need, therefore, to be wary about Brooks' claim about North Korean capabilities and Trump's threats to take unilateral action.

North Korea undoubtedly lacks understanding about the rest of the world and thinks bellicose posturing and demonstrations of military might help secure its defence. They also serve to convince its population that the Kim dynastic dictatorship has its best security interests at heart, and create a climate in which other countries might appease North Korea by providing economic aid.

It should be noted, though, that many of its short and medium-range missile launches under Kim Jong-un have been in response to what the regime regards as US and South Korean threats and provocations – such as holding major combined exercises near the demilitarised zone.

Henry Kissinger wrote in On China in 2011 that "acts conceived as defensive in China may be treated as aggressive by the rest of the world; deterrence moves by the West may be interpreted in China as encirclement". Substitute "North Korea" for "China" and it fits the North Korea situation today.

North Korea is certainly difficult to deal with, but Australian interests would continue to be better served by dealing directly with North Korea and making our own realistic assessments, rather than adopting policy positions based on US concerns.

North Korea has always seemed receptive to dialogue with Australia. Australia was one of the first Western countries to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea, leading to the regime opening an embassy in Canberra in 1974. The embassy was abandoned in 1975 after an incident involving the embassy's Mercedes. It was re-established in 2002 and closed in 2008 for financial reasons. In January 2013, North Korea sought to once again open its Canberra embassy; Australia denied the request.

In June 2016, Australia's ambassador to South Korea, Bill Paterson, made an official four-day visit to North Korea, which included meetings with officials in Pyongyang as well as travelling outside the capital to inspect Australian aid-funded projects (limited to humanitarian aid provided through the UN World Food Program and other international agencies).

An important ongoing issue in the bilateral relationship is Australians missing in action during the 1950-53 Korean War. Forty-three Australian MIAs are still to be recovered; most of the bodies are believed to lie in the demilitarised zone or North Korea. North Korea is prepared to allow US and Australian access to recover MIAs in North Korea.

Turning back to the US, the danger with erratic and strategically naive Trump is that he is probably oblivious to the potentially catastrophic regional consequences in North Asia, particularly for South Korea, that could flow from unilateral US military action against North Korea. Australia should therefore make it very clear to the US that under no circumstances would Australia contemplate supporting a US first strike against the North.

This article first appeared in Fairfax Media on Thursday, 13 April.

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Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team