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Stuck between a rock and a hard place: Australia and North Korea's nuclear program

Image credit: Clay Gilliland (Flickr: Creative Commons)

The spectacle of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula has been a notable feature of the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. This year alone, the hermit kingdom has staged seven missile tests, as it ultimately seeks to develop an ICBM missile that’s capable of striking mainland USA. In response, aside from considerably upping his rhetoric on North Korea, President Trump has also sent a naval strike group to the region. Australia has hardly been immune from the escalating situation, as Pyongyang warned that even Australia could come within range of North Korean nuclear strikes if it continued to ‘blindly’ toe the ‘US line.’

As with any foreign policy issue, Australia must establish what its national interests are. Obviously, it is in Australia’s best interests to try and preclude the brutal regime in Pyongyang from developing the requisite nuclear capabilities to strike the Australian or American mainlands.

At the same time, any kind of conflict that would result from a military attempt to disrupt North Korea’s nuclear program would likely be disastrous and, in any case, ineffective. US military facilities in Japan and South Korea, not to mention the densely populated Seoul, are all within range of conventional and possibly also unconventional North Korean strikes. Such a scenario would entail large-scale loss of life, economic disruption and, in all likelihood, a US counter-response. Given Australia’s history of military involvement in American military operations, it’s not inconceivable that Australia would find itself at war with North Korea. In such a scenario, Australia might also be at odds with China, its key trading partner and ally of North Korea.

In other words, whilst it’s eminently desirable to halt the progression of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities, it’s also imperative that any attempts to do this do not lead to any kind of military escalation. Thus, America and its allies must engage in a careful balancing act.

What’s often forgotten is that Pyongyang’s primary goal is regime survival. North Koreans remember that during the Korean War, US forces dropped more bombs on the North than they did during the entirety of the Pacific campaign in WW2. Officials in Pyongyang also note America’s recent history of regime change in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Ultimately, the North Korean regime believes that acquiring the capacity to strike the USA is the only way to definitively ensure that they do not befall a similar fate. To quote one, anonymous North Korean official, ‘if Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya had had nuclear weapons, their countries would not have been at the mercy of the Americans and their regime-change tactics’.

Clearly then, aggressive rhetoric, deployment of naval strike groups and military exercises will not intimidate Pyongyang into giving up a nuclear program that it feels is necessary to guarantee its survival. Such actions will also have limited efficacy in luring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Instead, such brinkmanship will only increase distrust. In an extreme scenario, based on the erroneous belief that a US invasion or strike is imminent, Pyongyang may even launch a pre-emptive strike on American or South Korean targets.

Accordingly, as a key US ally and regional power, Australia should do its part to defuse tensions by stressing diplomacy rather than military action, and by urging Trump to tone down his rhetoric. In this regard, Julie Bishop’s warning that when it comes to North Korea, ‘all options’ including the usage of military force are on ‘the table,’ is surely counterproductive.

Bishop’s urging of China to do more to pressure North Korea is a more prudent tactic. Trade with China accounts for nearly 90% of North Korea’s total trade volume. Chinese resistance to harsh sanctions has severely diminished the effectiveness of international sanctions on Pyongyang. China’s February decision to suspend its importation of coal from North Korea shows that Beijing is willing to take a tougher line on Pyongyang. With the ability to talk to both sides, China would also be pivotal to any efforts to resurrect the Six Party Talks, or to facilitate a possible yet unlikely meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un.

However, expectations that Chinese action will somehow herald a breakthrough should be tempered. Because of the very reasons mentioned above, Pyongyang is determined to hold onto and develop its nuclear arsenal at all costs. Beijing will also be reluctant to go too far in imposing sanctions on North Korea. This is because China fears that a destabilised North Korea would push millions of refugees over the Chinese border. In China’s eyes, for all its perceived faults, the Kim regime still acts as a useful buffer against American forces in the south of the peninsula.

As such, Australia and the region finds themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Any kind of military strike on North Korea’s nuclear program would lead to regional escalation and may not even destroy all of the nation’s nuclear infrastructure. Accordingly, Australia’s best option is to play its part in defusing regional tensions whilst encouraging talks and greater Chinese pressure, even if there is a fair chance that these initiatives will not induce Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. Unfortunately, because of Pyongyang’s determination and the excessive costs of any military action, there’s a real possibility that Australia, the US and the region will simply have to learn to live with a nuclear capable North Korea.

Henry Storey is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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