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North Korean crisis is the defining test for the G20

Author: Peter Jennings

The G20 is meeting during one of the most serious global situations since the Cuban missile crises of 1962.

Then, the Soviet Union was intent on deploying nuclear armed missiles to a blockaded island a few minutes flying time from America’s south east. The risk was not only what missiles could be launched from Cuba but whether a conflict might spiral out of control and lead to an all-out nuclear war between Washington and Moscow.

Today the situation on the Korean peninsula is just as uncertain. With help from Pakistan and China, North Korea is within a sprint of developing a nuclear armed inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) in a widely dispersed arsenal of such weapons able to be launched from silos, mobile vehicles and in time, from submarines.

The North already has around 20 nuclear devices and although these may not fit on missiles, it’s possible they could be detonated inside submarines sent on suicide missions to Seoul or Tokyo.

After an American strike in response we don’t know how China might react to the destruction of its ally. Once the nuclear threshold is breached we face a global situation as dire as those thirteen days in October 1962 when nuclear war seemed likely.

Even short of that scenario the situation is grim. If, as most people predict, the North launched an artillery barrage against Seoul following an attack on its nuclear and missile sites, the first few hours of a barrage would cause thousands of fatalities.

The crisis lends an air of unreality to the G20’s deliberations, thoughtfully shaped by Germany around the themes of building resilience, improving sustainability and assuming responsibility. 

The G20 agenda is admirable, with a focus on economic growth, an integrated approach to energy and climate change, doing more to strengthen and develop Africa and forward thinking on protecting the digital economy from cyber criminals.

Along with a commitment to do more on counter-terrorism and against the Islamic State group, the gathering will deliver solid outcomes. Be assured: the communique will mostly have been written days before the leaders arrived in Hamburg.

But the G20 will fail if it doesn’t help to build an international consensus on North Korea. A large-scale war on the peninsula would break the global order established at the end of the Second World War. It will destroy the two Koreas, turning both into humanitarian basket-cases for decades. It will plunge the world into an economic slowdown that will make the Global Financial Crisis look like a speed bump.

Right now there is no credible strategy – not even the beginnings of one – to deal with this situation. The Trump administration is, frankly, making up responses on the fly. At a time when words carry the risk of tipping the world into war, Donald Trump’s undisciplined use of Twitter to criticise China and threaten the North with unspecified consequences are breathtakingly ill-considered.

In the Pentagon and State Department critical jobs remain empty, which means that there is no one of the calibre of a Kurt Campbell or a Michele Flournoy developing a sensible strategy. The military will be working on contingencies including pre-emptive strikes and the defence of Seoul. They of all people know there is no controllable military outcome to this crisis.

What then should be done? Speaking at the Shangri La dialogue in Singapore last month Malcolm Turnbull made the striking observation that: ‘in this brave new world we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests.  We have to take responsibility for our own security and prosperity while recognising we are stronger when sharing the burden of collective leadership with trusted partners and friends.’

Turnbull’s words reflect the current reality, which is that Washington can’t handle the North Korean crisis by itself. It also couldn’t be clearer that China will not force different behaviour on its ally.

There is no point in Australia waiting to be a pall bearer at the funeral. We need to use what influence we have to shape a better response in Washington and other capitals.

We should also open a line of communication with Pyongyang – to see if there is any dialogue that might help to prevent conflict.

A satellite photograph of the Korean peninsula at night famously shows the South a dazzling blaze of light and the North blacked out save for a dull glow around the capital. The reality is that our intelligence picture of the North’s leadership intentions is equally in the dark.

We don’t need to doubt Kim Jong Un’s determination to develop nuclear-tipped ICBMs, but the absence of contact between the regime and the west hinders any ability to assess how to handle them. America’s best contact into the regime seems to have been the recent visits of the outlandish basketball player, Dennis Rodman, who calls Kim a ‘friend for life.’  His fifth visit to Pyongyang last month, sponsored by a company called Pot Coin, is a poor substitute for engagement.

Australia can play a role here. Our embassy in Seoul is accredited to Pyongyang, where there hasn’t been a US embassy for years. We should coordinate this with key allies, but Australia should look to open a line of dialogue with the regime.

Australia has performed a similar role in Iran, where the US hasn’t had diplomatic representation since 1979. With North Korea, we should try to start a discussion on what a sustainable dialogue might look like. The US is too invested to do this, particularly because the Chinese are unhelpfully suggesting that negotiations might be possible if the US freezes military exercises with the South.

At the same time as Australia reaches out to Pyongyang, there should be a full-on effort to help Washington develop a diplomatic and military plan to strengthen deterrence against North Korean aggression. Our position should be ‘no annihilation without representation’, meaning that if conflict does happen we should put our best strategic minds to the task of making sure the war plan has a chance to work.

Finally, Australia should consider asking Seoul if they would welcome a unit of the Australian Defence Force to be stationed in Korea for a period. Turnbull could use the G20 to press other likeminded countries to do the same.

That move would show Pyongyang that the world is committed to South Korea’s security in deed as well as word. It would be better to send forces there now to strengthen deterrence than to belatedly commit a stabilisation force after the peninsula has been destroyed.

Stepping up to take a global leadership role on security, as Turnbull foreshadowed in Singapore, is tough because it forces actions that go beyond diplomatic platitudes. Has Australia got the gumption to do this, or will we just wait for the conflict to start and hope others fight the war for us?

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Originally published: The Weekend Australian. 8 July 2017