North Korea’s test of resolve

Author: William Tow, ANU

Two developments critical to Asia-Pacific security transpired during early May 2010: the opening of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (REVCOM) at the UN Headquarters in New York and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il’s visit to China.  They are inter-related by North Korea’s disregard of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) guidelines prohibiting its development of nuclear weapons.  A nuclear North Korea clearly threatens Australian interests. Any major conflict that explodes on the Korean Peninsula in the absence of North Korea’s denuclearisation, and that spreads throughout Northeast Asia, would cut Australia off from key trading routes, possibly involve Australian combat forces, and heighten prospects that Australia’s joint installations with the United States would be attacked by hostile regional powers.

Events leading up to both REVCOM and Kim’s trip underscore the challenges facing Australian policy-makers and other regional countries intent on realising regional peace and stability. The sinking of the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan by a suspected North Korean torpedo attack in late March, China’s announcement just prior to REVCOM that it would sell two nuclear power plants to Pakistan in evident violation of Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines prohibiting such sales to states outside the NPT regime, and Japan’s continued difficulties in resolving its dispute with the United States over the future of US forces in Okinawa have all contribute to strategic uncertainty in Asia.  So too does North Korea’s reported collaboration with Iran on missile technology and assistance to Myanmar in constructing nuclear power plant equipment.

These developments collectively point to an atmosphere of growing geopolitical uncertainty in the region and to North Korea’s central role in fostering that atmosphere. Traditional alliance politics, institution-building and power diplomacy seem to have done little to defuse the region-wide tensions generated by North Korea effectively holding the capital city of South Korea hostage to massive artillery deployments near the Demilitarised Zone and threatening to quickly sever Seoul from the rest of South Korea with North Korean special forces units deployed near the DMZ to effect such a blitzkrieg.  Nor have they enabled China and the United States to reach agreement how to manage Kim Jong-il’s emulation of his late father’s juche tactics now directed toward playing one great power off another in the context of the Six Party Talks. It is significant that while China extracted a public commitment from Kim during his visit that he would rejoin those negotiations to explore denuclearisation options, no mention was made by Chinese press reports on Kim’s visit of any pressure by Beijing to link future Chinese assistance critical for North Korea’s economic survival to better North Korean behaviour toward South Korea. This has been bitterly noted by South Korean government officials and poorly received by the South Korean electorate.

It is likely, despite Kim’s latest promise that North Korea will return to the Six Party Talks, that the defusing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula will remain a tortuous and elusive task. What can Australia – so distant from the vortex of Northeast Asian confrontation yet so dependent on its peaceful outcome – do to help resolve this dilemma?

Initially, and most importantly, it can join the US in encouraging South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak to continue exercising judicious restraint if the growing evidence implicating Pyongyang in the destruction of the Cheonan leads to clear proof of North Korean guilt.  The Action Plan underwriting the 2009 Australia-South Korea Joint Statement on Enhanced Global Security Cooperation provides a framework for the Rudd government to engage in bilateral policy consultations with South Korean officials to encourage responses which reflect both appropriate firmness and judicious restraint.  Further, due to its long-standing membership of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC) which oversees the 1953 armistice, Australia is well positioned to influence any economic sanctions or other penalties that the United Nations may eventually impose on North Korea in the absence of Kim’s return to the Six Party Talks. As an established leader in disarmament politics and as a country that maintains normalised diplomatic relations with North Korea, Australia can calibrate its policy responses toward preventing unbridled crisis escalation between the North and South and work with both China and the United States to achieve that end.

Kim Jong-il’s poor health signals that an imminent and uncertain leadership transition may be under way in Pyongyang. The stakes embodied in successfully tempering any North Korean bellicosity during this time are therefore huge.  Although it cannot be a central player in any such tempering process, Australia can nevertheless play a constructive role.

How well it responds to this challenge will both indicate how much its vaunted ‘middle power diplomacy’ really counts as a positive factor in regional security politics and, hopefully, how effective it may be in helping to achieve peaceful solutions to the Korean dilemma.

William Tow is professor of International relations in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the ANU.

This article is part of a special feature on the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking.