Are Canberra or Sydney in Kim Jong Un’s crosshairs? Two recent reports have put DPRK-Australia relations in the spotlight. And, as usual, Pyongyang is firing off mixed messages.
A month ago, on September 24, the Foreign Affairs Committee of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), which once a year purports to be a legislature, sent what it called an “open letter to parliaments of different countries.”
As Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pithily noted, this document is basically a rant against Donald Trump. But however naively, or more likely disingenuously, it was couched as an appeal for solidarity.
The SPA FAC concluded by expressing the “belief that the parliaments of different countries loving independence, peace and justice will fully discharge their due mission and duty in realizing the desire of mankind for international justice and peace with sharp vigilance against the heinous and reckless moves of the Trump administration trying to drive the world into a horrible nuclear disaster.”
KCNA didn’t say which countries this missive was sent to. But we know Australia was one, because they’ve told us so. Foreign minister Julie Bishop posted it on her Facebook page last week, adding a perhaps contentious comment: “The collective strategies of allies and partners to impose maximum diplomatic and economic sanctions on North Korea is [sic] working.” Note in passing that the covering letter was from the DPRK embassy in Jakarta.
Australia and North Korea have actually had diplomatic ties since 1975, but it’s been a rocky relationship. Twice, decades apart, Pyongyang has opened an embassy in Canberra – only to soon close it. The first time, they did a mystery flit after less than a year. In 2008 the reasons were finance and solitude: “We have no friends”, sighed a DPRK diplomat with rare honesty. But all that is another story; an entertaining, if rumor-ridden version, is here.
DC: PLEASE REOPEN! CANBERRA: SORRY MATE, BUT NO
Pari passu, in 1975 Australia very briefly had an embassy in Pyongyang. The second time around they didn’t bother, covering the North from Seoul. Intriguingly, The Australian recently claimed that in 2013-14, the U.S. pressed Canberra to reopen its mission in the DPRK capital – but was rebuffed by its usually loyal Antipodean ally. Bishop and then-premier Tony Abbott looked into it and did costings, but the matter never went to Cabinet. Given where we are now, I agree with local critics: this was the wrong call, short-sighted and a diplomatic fail.
But back to that open letter. Bishop called it “unprecedented”, though there have been such initiatives before. Carefully parsing it – apparently Canberra was spared the most lurid anti-Trump rhetoric – Sydney’s Lowy Institute concluded that this was “a muddy-the-waters letter to support North Korea’s strategy of buying time until it is militarily ready.”
Australia and North Korea have actually had diplomatic ties since 1975, but it’s been a rocky relationship
They also note that the letter “dispenses with much of the aggression normally associated with North Korea’s pronouncements.” But not for long. Oddly unmentioned in an article published on October 23, by then Pyongyang had changed its tune back to the usual snarls and menaces.
On October 14, riled by Ms. Bishop’s visiting the DMZ during a trip to Seoul, North Korea’s foreign ministry attacked Australia’s “hostile moves”. Their statement warned that “should Australia continue to follow the U.S. in imposing military, economic and diplomatic pressure upon the DPRK despite our repeated warnings, they will not be able to avoid a disaster.”
End of the peace initiative. Nor was this the first such threat. In fact, Australia is a regular target for Pyongyang’s tongue-lashing, to borrow a favorite DPRK phrase.
On April 21 a KCNA article headlined “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Snipes at Australian FM’s Tongue-lashing against DPRK” criticised Julie Bishop for “spout[ing] a string of rubbish against the DPRK”.
WARNING: WE COULD NUKE YOU
There was also an explicit nuclear threat: “if Australia persists in following the U.S. moves to… stifle the DPRK and remains a shock brigade of the U.S. master, this will be a suicidal act of coming within the range of the nuclear strike of the strategic force of the DPRK.”
On July 7 KCNA repeated this threat in more insidious terms: “There are assertions among Australia’s high-ranking military officers that it is necessary… to take into consideration the fact that its northern areas are definitely within the strike range of north Korea…”
After Canberra announced it would join this year’s U.S.-ROK Ulchi Focus Lens war games, the DPRK foreign ministry weighed in once more on August 19, calling this “a suicidal act of inviting disaster …. Australia followed the U.S. to the Korean War, the Vietnamese War and the ‘war on terrorism’, but heavy loss of lives and assets were all that it got in return.” And again, the threat: “Countries like Australia that join the military adventure against the DPRK, blindly following the U.S., will never avoid the counter-measures of justice by the DPRK.”
Australia has long been a close ally of the U.S. Yet North Korea used not to excoriate it in such crudely menacing terms. Indeed, back in 2003 Pyongyang hotly denied harboring any such hostile intentions, when they were imputed to it by a supposed DPRK representative.
KIM MYONG CHOL: PIONEER THREATENER
Kim Myong Chol may be a name known to NK News readers. A Korean resident of Japan, he has long been treated as an unofficial spokesman for the DPRK: a role he seems to relish. Or seemed. A quick search yields nothing by him since 2012. Has Kim piped down?
He used to be very loud indeed. Around the turn of the century, as we’ll see in a future article, he was much quoted: often cheerfully threatening all and sundry with nuclear annihilation by the DPRK. His language was extreme for those times – if not alas now, when alarmingly war talk has become all the rage not only in Pyongyang but also, God help us, in Washington.
Australia is a regular target for Pyongyang’s tongue-lashing, to borrow a favorite DPRK phrase
In 2003 Chol got into trouble over remarks he made on ABC (the Australian broadcaster, not its American counterpart). A link to the original transcript no longer works, alas, so the following account relies on a secondary source covering the ensuing row.
However, a different ABC interview with Kim, earlier the same year – they must have liked him, to ask him back – gives the flavor of the man and his bluster. Here’s a sample:
“If the Bush Government rejects [us], North Korea will be forced to test fire bas [sc. ballistic] missile. Not here, off Los Angeles, off New York….America is enemy number one. North Korea missile can reach any part of United States of America. There is no shelter for Bush.”
In 2003, already? Wild braggadocio, in those days – but you get the idea. In July, Kim gave Australia the same treatment. The context was the then new Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI): still extant with 105 signatory nations – including Russia, but not China nor any other BRICs – yet rarely spoken of now.
This U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” aimed to stop the global spread of WMDs by interdicting vessels on the high seas. Ostensibly general in scope, it was widely seen as chiefly targeting two nations: North Korea and Iran.
Canberra was among the first to sign up to the PSI – and that got Kim Myong Chol’s goat. Still smarting, perhaps, from Australia’s then-recent pursuit and seizure of the heroin-carrying freighter Pong Su earlier that year – a whole other story – Kim warned that “if Australia becomes part of American manipulation against North Korea, North Korea reserve (sic) the right to strike back on Australia.” Just to be clear, he said it again: “If Australia become part of American operation, North Korean response is to attack Australia.”
That certainly got a reaction: most sharply from Labor, then, as now, in opposition. Its leader Kevin Rudd – a trained China specialist, later to be prime minister in 2007-10 – called Kim “a madman [who] should not be listened to seriously”. More gently, the-then prime minister John Howard and foreign minister Alexander Downer both queried Kim’s standing and credibility.
“North Korea missile can reach any part of United States of America. There is no shelter for Bush”
And guess what? So did North Korea’s own embassy in Canberra, which had reopened only a year older. An unnamed DPRK spokesman said Kim – or “Mr. Myong-Chol”, as the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) embarrassingly styled him – had no official standing, and insisted that Pyongyang sought only friendship: “Why would we want to bomb Australia? There is no reason for North Korea to attack Australia.”
Foreign minister Downer echoed that view, with firm self-assurance: “They wouldn’t do it. They’re not only incapable of doing it, but it would be completely self-defeating even if they developed the capability … We don’t believe for a minute North Korea would launch some kind of nuclear attack against Australia or have the capacity to fire nuclear missiles that sort of distance, that’s if they have any capacity to fire nuclear missiles at all.”
The SMH headline reporting all this read: “Target Australia? Tell him he’s dreaming”. 14 years on, nightmare might be a better word. Rather than raving, Kim Jong Chol turns out to have been disturbingly prescient.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Photo: Rodong Sinmun
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