Australia wants to avoid a Korean conflict at all costs – and with good reason | Antoun Issa

Antoun Issa
North Korean nuclear and missile deterrence has worked so far in staving off US military action against the regime of Kim Jong-un. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Australia may indeed be “blindly and zealously toeing the US line” with regards to North Korea – at least openly – but in truth, Canberra wants to avoid conflict with Pyongyang. There is much at stake for Australia should war resume on the Korean peninsula, after more than 63 years of tense calm. While Julie Bishop stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Mike Pence for the cameras, there is no doubt that, privately, Australian diplomats are offering their US counterparts advice geared towards resolving the North Korea dilemma peacefully.

There is good reason to believe that the current rise in tensions is not simply the latest political ploy by Pyongyang, and that the Trump administration is indeed prioritising the situation. The US president, Donald Trump, reportedly told UN security council diplomats on Monday to “solve the problem” of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, while the entire US Senate was warned during an unusual briefing by the White House on Wednesday that Pyongyang posed “an urgent national security threat”.

The diplomatic rhetoric has been matched by bellicose military posturing from both sides – the latest of which was North Korea’s large-scale artillery exercise on Tuesday, as the ballistic-missile submarine USS Michigan docked in South Korea. Pence reiterated on his visit to Canberra that “all options are on the table” and it seems the Trump administration is determined to flex its muscles to achieve compliance from North Korea on nuclear proliferation.

The escalating tensions in North and South Korea have created nothing short of a headache for the Australian government, which considers the matter a high priority. Bishop was said to have dedicated a lot of time on her February trip to Washington discussing North Korea. And why wouldn’t she? Australia has much to lose should war erupt in a strategically vital region for trade and security. Canberra’s core interest is to maintain stability in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in areas that will affect its trade, such as the Korean peninsula.

North Korea’s immediate neighbours – China, South Korea and Japan – are three of Australia’s top four trading partners, the other being the US. A war, which would probably involve all four powers, would have a direct and immediate impact on Australia’s economy. Canberra is rightly worried about the destabilising effects a Korean war would bring.

That message is undoubtedly being relayed to the Trump administration, which, despite its tough talk, has no ideas on how to resolve the dilemma. Aware of the high costs of military force, US officials, including Pence, concede that diplomacy remains the main course of action.

The options on the table are few. Kim Jong-un, questions of his sanity aside, appears aware of his advantageous position. North Korean nuclear and missile deterrence has worked thus far in staving off US military action, and China, despite its obvious frustrations with Kim, remains, at least for now, committed to the survival of the regime in Pyongyang for its own security interests.

All of this has brought US-Australian coordination on North Korea ever closer. Consultations are robust, and Australian input is being sought in providing ideas on how best to deal with North Korea. While Australia shares America’s concern regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear missile capabilities – particularly given Australia now is a marked target for North Korea’s missiles – and welcomes increased pressure to deter North Korean aggression, there is a strong preference in Canberra to avoid armed conflict.

Should Trump take the road to military action, Australia wants to be in on the decision-making process. According to sources in Washington, the Five Eyes alliance – America’s closest allies, which include the Anglo powers of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – were given only a three-hour notice of Trump’s decision to strike Syria. Last-minute calls on major military operations are not standard protocol for the Five Eyes and while, Syria is not a big national security concern for Australia, North Korea certainly is, and Canberra expects to be at the table early on.

But one clear takeaway from this month’s strike on Syria was that this administration will play tough on adversaries and enforce red lines – the red line here is a North Korean capability, presumed to be in development, to hit the US mainland with a nuclear warhead.

The possibility of armed conflict in the Korea peninsula – although remote – cannot be ruled out while Trump is in office. Such a possibility now has to be part of the Australian government’s calculus as it forms its policy towards North Korea in particular, and the Asia-Pacific in general.

Canberra had adapted to an Obama administration that preferred multilateral diplomacy and offshore balancing in its handling of Pyongyang. Although North Korea continued to expand its nuclear program, Obama’s hands-off approach resulted in a predictable stability on the peninsula around which Canberra could shape its policy. That predictability is now out the window.

The Trump administration has swiftly replaced Obama’s policy of containing North Korea with coercion. Trump will go to lengths to prevent the North Koreans from obtaining a long-range nuclear missile in striking distance of the US. How far he will go remains to be seen, which explains why Australia wants to get into his ear sooner rather than later.

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