Australia and North Korea: Farewell Great and Powerful Friends?

For more than 10 years I have been writing about the North Korean nuclear crisis, arguing that it has serious potential implications for Australia. I had long argued that we are “sleepwalking” toward catastrophe, but oddly the issue barely gained traction. One reason, doubtless, was because of a generalised incredulity regarding North Korea’s scientific and technological capabilities. The day when Canberra had to factor into its calculations a North Korean long range missile armed with a thermonuclear warhead was always seen as well, well ahead of us to the extent that it was ever seen as being a realistic prospect in the first place.

But North Korea has tested a two stage thermonuclear warhead, and the oft stated yield of 120kT presented in the Australian literature and media outlets is a significant understatement. There’s good reason to believe the hydrogen bomb tested on September 03 had a yield of something to the tune of 350kT.

The Hwasong-14 ICBM tested on July 04 and July 28 has a range of 10,400km when not fired in an easterly direction (more if fired due east due to the rotation of the earth). 8,515km separates Pyongyang from Sydney, and 8,763km from Melbourne. That puts both major Australian cities within the cross hairs of North Korea’s Strategic Rocket Forces.

A 350kT yield airburst over Sydney would immediately kill about 255,000 people. In Melbourne a 350kT yield airburst would immediately kill about 175,000. That’s assuming a strike upon the CBD of both cities.

The North Korean nuclear crisis now represents something very new in the Australian strategic experience, namely the end of Australian invulnerability in the context of “forward defence.” Australian strategic history, to no small degree, following the Frontier Wars has been shaped by the “great and powerful friends tradition” whereby Australia pays an insurance premium to a great power benefactor, first the UK and then the US, through the provision of military support for expeditionary campaigns waged by the benefactor in hope, and it is a hope, that the benefactor will pay out on the policy should disaster strike. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, Iraq and the rest are all premium payments seen to be mandated by the great and powerful friends tradition.

That premium, of course, has a price but that price did not involve significant damage to the Australian homeland. To be sure “home grown terrorism” is a type of cost borne on the homeland following our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is seen as minor indeed puny compared to the perceived benefits of the strategic relationship with the US, relatively easily managed, and can even be functional for conservative political elites when campaigning on national security policy. But North Korea is different. The insurance premium now just might be Sydney and Melbourne, no small premium indeed.

For Canberra this is a problem.

Imagine one owns a car worth, say, $30,000. One, naturally, insures the car. One pays a premium. No rational agent will pay an insurance premium of $30,000 namely the value of the car itself. Yet offering Melbourne and Sydney as the insurance premium is on our insurance policy with Washington is akin to paying a premium to the value of the very item being insured, which is irrational. The matter, of course, gets better, so to speak, when we take into account that under the ANZUS Treaty our benefactor in Washington is not obligated to pay out the policy, only to consult with us on the matter of a payout should we require one.

To be sure Australia was, most likely, a nuclear target during the cold war, something Canberra knowingly cultivated thinking it would make the benefactor more likely to pay out the insurance policy when needed, but that was in the context of the central strategic balance with the Soviet Union not necessarily forward defence where we had carte blanche.

North Korea, following Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s and Defence Minister Marise Payne’s visit to Panmunjom, has again reiterated that Australia is a potential target of Pyongyang’s Strategic Rocket Forces. The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has stated that Australia would, under the great and powerful friends tradition, participate in any conflict on the Korean peninsula. When opposition leader Kim Beazley said much the same. Given that the ANZUS Treaty is explicitly framed with respect to the Pacific that participation would need to be more significant than those in the Middle East and Afghanistan have been, in order to impress upon the benefactor our bona fides as a Pacific ally.

Julie Bishop has brushed off North Korea’s warning, as she would, stating that Australia is not North Korea’s primary target. That is indeed true. But wiping out Melbourne and Sydney only takes two missiles, and North Korea’s stock of fissile materials and long range missiles can only grow with time. President Trump, supported by Turnbull, has hardly shown any indication that he is determined to defuse the North Korean crisis; to the contrary his actions have been consistently escalatory. A lot of that escalatory rhetoric and action has little to do with the security of the American homeland, but plenty to do with Washington’s credibility as a global and regional hegemon. When that is at stake, as shown by JFK, planners in Washington are prepared to roll the dice.

North Korea has shown itself to be a relatively less risk averse nuclear weapons state than most, the US hitherto by far being the least risk averse, and likely will posture its nuclear forces in a way to compel outside powers to recognise its legitimate place in the regional and global order. That posture, combined with the US concern for hegemonic credibility, could lead to war on the Korean peninsula.

All the Way, to borrow Harold Holt’s well-worn phrase, now just might mean losing Melbourne and Sydney, and that essentially in support of a risky US venture to ensure the credibility of Washington’s status as a hegemonic power. Those are the, considerable stakes, and Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop don’t want Australians to know of those stakes doubtless because they fear the rationality of the Australian public.

Australia has just announced its commitment to acquiring an Aegis SM-3 based Ballistic Missile Defence system from the US, but that has little to do with the defence of the Australian homeland and everything to do with the interoperability of Australian military forces with those of the US, Japan and South Korea for Northeast Asian contingencies, a fact well known to both Pyongyang and Beijing.

For the most part challenges to the great and powerful friends tradition, for instance expertly argued by Hugh White, easily Australia’s leading strategic thinker, has focused on the impact that the rise of China has on the ANZUS relationship with Washington and so Beijing has dominated Australian strategic discourse.

But North Korea has now spectacularly burst onto the scene, so much so that discussion on the nature and future of the ANZUS relationship cannot now be considered without taking Korea into account. Even the quintessential drover’s dog is now talking North Korea.

I thought I would leave the obvious point last. Australia’s commitment to forward defence with regard to the United States began with North Korea during the Korean War. There it may end.

Update. I have received an excellent comment on this post from an especially knowledgeable and astute analyst through personal correspondence which I believe bears repeating;

“The Australian alliance with the US is often conceived of as an insurance policy, as you described. This, though, leaves out Australia’s role as an imperialist power in its own right. A better metaphor is that of a franchise fee. Australia pays the fee through participating in Uncle Sam’s wars & aggressively prosecuting the US case in international fora, and in return it gets free rein in its own sphere of interest, which is the South Pacific & (in recent years) East Timor. The US doesn’t interfere and also discourages rival powers from intervening. This is a clear present benefit to the Australian ruling class and isn’t dependent on the US doing “the right thing” at some future date that may never eventuate.”

I think that’s right.