In Harm’s Way: Australia and North Korea

2 04 2013

Kevin Rudd(by Sasha Petrova, Crikey, 26 March 2013) In late 2011, then Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd wrote an opinion piece in which he warned Australia about the threat of missile attack from North Korea – a “cruel, totalitarian state” that he claimed could “prove to be our worst nightmare.”

“The secretive North Koreans are hard at work to threaten our allies, our region and us. North Korea has not only developed nuclear weapons, it is also building missiles that could, in future, reach Australia,” Rudd wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

Drawing on the two nuclear tests conducted by North Korea in 2006 and 2009, and the imminent destabilising transition of power, Rudd cautioned that “we, in Australia, have no cause for comfort.” He detailed that the rogue regime’s development of the Taepo-Dong 2 – a long-range missile that was tested in 2006 but crashed shortly after take-off – put Australia well within its purported 9000km range, with Darwin lying 6000km and Sydney 8500km away.

Less than two years on, a successful missile launch and another nuclear test later, should we heed Rudd’s warnings? With increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, continuous threats from an ambitious Kim Jung-un, a ramping up of US military drills in South Korea, Pyongyang’s nullification of the 1953 Korean Armistice and last Monday’s propaganda video of an imagined attack against Washington, could Australia truly be in harm’s way?

Not according to Dr Leonid Petrov, a Korean Studies expert from the Australian National University. “North Koreans don’t have any intention to attack Australia,” he says. “They didn’t event test an ICBM.” The gravest fear is of North Korea developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of mounting a nuclear warhead.

Pyongyang claimed that its missile launch in December last year was purely for the purposes of putting a satellite into orbit for weather and maritime monitoring. “I don’t have any reason not to trust them because in fact they did put the satellite into orbit. It was, in essence, very similar to what South Korea did the following month – in January 2013. It launched a missile that had the same pattern of flight, the same orbit and was flying southward towards Australia.”

Moreover, Dr Petrov puts Rudd’s grave warnings down to personal histrionics based on a grudge he has held against the North Koreans for some time. “I was surprised to see when Kevin Rudd won the elections in late 2007 and the North Korean embassy in Canberra packed up and left in January 2008. Something must have happened between the North Korean embassy and Kevin Rudd ‘s administration that prompted the North Korean embassy to leave.”

Personal grievances aside, it’s impossible to dismiss Pyongyang’s aggressive behaviour. Indeed a failed missile test in March 2012 was reportedly headed in our direction, with a personal warning issued to Bob Carr by the US State Department.

Australia has long been on alert to a threat from the north. The 2009 Defence White Paper considered “threats posed by ballistic missiles and their proliferation, particularly by states of concern such as North Korea,” as potential strategic challenges. Recently, the National Security Strategy also flagged the tensions and unstable environment on the Korean Peninsula, particularly arising from North Korea, as worrisome for Australia.

North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, the most comprehensive international agreement to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, still draws widespread condemnation; it’s nuclear ambitions continuing to alarm world leaders. Consequent six-party talks and other negotiations about its suspected – and self-professed – nuclear program have failed to reach a suitable compromise.

Australia has been one of the 15 members of the Security Council who, in January, unanimously voted to adopt sanctions against North Korea under Resolution 2087. These imposed travel bans and asset freezes on some senior officials. In response to the latest nuclear test in February, the most recent resolution strengthened and intensified the sanctions already in place since its first test in 2006.

For Australia, these sanctions mean a ban on supplying, selling or transferring all arms and related material to North Korea as well as a wide list of items, materials, equipment and technology that relates to ballistic missile programs or weapons of mass destruction.

These impositions have only served to aggravate the regime further. While Pyongyang continues to conduct missile and nuclear tests in clear violation of Security Council Resolutions, its nullification of the 1953 truce to end the Korean War stands as the most problematic of its retaliatory actions so far. In this regard, Dr Petrov considers the situation to be more serious now than it was in January or last December.

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