Australia’s patchy relations with North Korea turned particularly sour in 2017. This has happened before, and the pattern is familiar: North Korea provokes, the U.S. warns, Australia joins the U.S. and condemns the North, Pyongyang threatens Australia.
Australia supports President Trump’s hardline policy of sanctions on North Korea and pressure on China. It does not have an independent policy towards the North, let alone towards longer-term or strategic foreign policy goals to help establish peace and security on the Korean peninsula as a whole.
And when it comes to the North Korean problem, it does not engage with South Korea but bypasses it. Its foreign policy lacks a deeper understanding of Korean affairs, intelligence and, most importantly, access to the country it once tried to have.
One recent example is the open letter sent by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the People’s Assembly of North Korea to the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia on 28 September 2017. In the letter, North Korea condemns the current U.S. policy towards North Korea and seeks solidarity with foreign parliamentarians. There was no specific mention of Australia.
Australia-North Korea relations weren’t always like this
Let’s get a few things straight. First, it is not “unprecedented” for North Korea to send a letter to a foreign government.
The People’s Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee used to send letters to foreign parliaments and organize visits from 1990 to 1998. The Committee was revived after 19 years at the Supreme People’s Committee meeting in April this year, as part of efforts to improve foreign relations and form an anti-Trump alliance.
It is now headed by Ri Su Yong, and other members include Kim Kye Kwan (First Vice Foreign Minister and former six-party talks envoy), Ri Ryong Nam (Vice Premier of the Cabinet), and Ri Son Kwon (Chair of the Committee for Peaceful Unification).
There is now little chance that the current Australian government will send an envoy to North Korea, and Kim Jong Un’s propaganda team may include Canberra in its next missile strike plan.
Australia-North Korea relations weren’t always like this. Under Labor governments, there were positive efforts to improve terms with North Korea and encourage inter-Korean relations. In 1974, under the Whitlam government, Australia and North Korea agreed to set up embassies. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
Less than a year later, in 1975, North Korea pulled out its embassy from Canberra and expelled the Australian ambassador from Pyongyang. The North accused Australia of supporting an unfriendly Western-led pro-South Korean resolution at the United Nations General Assembly. The first button was wrongly done, as they say in Korean.
On top of that, there seemed to be more pragmatic reasons the North Korean embassy withdrew so early. According to Adrian Buzo in a 1997 article for the Australian Journal of International Affairs, the North Korean staff were complaining about travel restrictions imposed by Australia.
Anyone lived in Canberra in 1975 may have a better understanding of what a diplomatic life was like back then, and for anyone who understands what North Korean diplomats do overseas other than their normal diplomatic services, Canberra is not a friendly environment to do business. It is widely known that North Korean diplomats have been directly and indirectly engaged in commercial activities, often illegally. With this cost-benefit analysis, North Korean diplomats might have concluded that running an embassy in Canberra was not going to achieve much.
SUNSHINE, AUSSIE STYLE
Under the Hawke and Keating governments in 1983-1996, there were new initiatives, with emphasis on improving inter-Korean relations. They were respectful to South Korea and the aim was to promote peace and stability in the region.
Joining Trump’s war rhetoric hurts Australia’s Asia policy
Australia and North Korea re-established diplomatic relations in 2000 under the Howard Liberal-National coalition government.
During his premiership, Australia donated A$21.9million to the Korea Energy Development Organisation as part of the U.S.-North Korea Geneva Framework. His government also gave at least A$600 million worth of technical assistance and humanitarian aid to North Korea. In 2001, North Korean foreign minister Bak Nam Soon even visited Australia.
In 2002, Pyongyang reopened its embassy in Canberra. But Canberra did not open theirs in Pyongyang and instead stopped exchanges with North Korea. At the beginning of 2002, U.S. President Bush described North Korea an “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address, and Australia’s policy toward North Korea largely fell in line with Washington’s.
In the following years, Canberra sent delegations of senior government officials to Pyongyang to discuss nuclear issues, highly likely after consultation with, or even a request from, the U.S. Foreign minister Downer visited North Korea in August 2004 to urge the North Korean government to be abided by international law and to abandon its nuclear program. The relations turned sour again. In 2008, North Korea once again closed its embassy in Canberra.
Australia does not need to invite North Korean threats by giving a blank check to a U.S. military option
A THIRD WAY
For Australia’s national interests, its relations with North Korea are right to be coordinated with its allies, the U.S. and South Korea. But Canberra could do more. As a member of the UN command that signed the ceasefire in 1953, Australia can be an interlocutor between its allies and North Korea in difficult times.
Australia was never a prime target for North Korean attack, and can talk to Pyongyang when the U.S. cannot and offer advice. Australia does not need to invite North Korean threats by giving a blank check to talk from the U.S. of military options, and joining Trump in his war rhetoric hurts its Asia policy overall by destabilizing the region.
Australia needs to rethink its approach to North Korea and establish long-term strategies for engagement with both Koreas, independent from the U.S., reviving its channels of communication at a time when information is so scarce that the chances of miscalculation are high.
With the letter from the Foreign Affairs Committee, North Korean opened a new inter-parliamentary channel of communication. Australia could seize this opportunity to access the country again. Former foreign minister Gareth Evans and members of parliament’s Joint Intelligence and Security Committee are well-positioned to plan a parliamentary visit. With a deeper understanding of Korean affairs, Australia could play a diplomatic role in the region that neither the U.S. nor China is capable of.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Canberra by smjbk on 2013-07-01 11:40:21