NEWS

Australia's Tough Talk On North Korea Obscures A More Subtle Diplomatic Game

Subtle or not, though, it could still go sideways.

22/08/2017 7:33 PM AEST | Updated 22/08/2017 8:23 PM AEST

Australia is unlikely to be a target of North Korean aggression despite tough talk overnight between the two nations, but there remains a danger of an unexpected flare up as multiple countries play a high stakes diplomatic game to quieten the hermit nation.

North Korean state media on Monday labeled Australia's decision to back the U.S. in the event of conflict on the troubled peninsula as a "suicidal act", prompting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to hit back and call the rogue nuclear power "reckless."

But despite the tough talk, the Australian Government is working hard to exhaust all its peacemaking options before even the possibility of entering any conflict, according to Dr Aran Martin from the University of Melbourne.

KCNA KCNA / Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts with scientists and technicians of the DPRK Academy of Defence Science after the test-launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July, 5, 2017.

"The primary threat to Australia is the risk that there's a great power conflict in east Asia," said Martin, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne's School of Social and Political Sciences.

"Whoever starts this, however it takes place, it will damage Australia's national interest if a conflict takes place in a region so central to our national interest.

"I think it's unlikely that we will be in the direct firing line of any North Korean aggression. I can't see that North Korea would have any great strategic interest in striking Australia at this point."

Getty Images,
The American territory of Guam remains on high alert as a showdown between the U.S. and North Korea continues. North Korea has said that it is planning to launch four missiles near Guam by the middle of August.

On Monday Prime Minister Turnbull called for nations to redouble their efforts to bring North Korea "to its senses" and end its reckless and dangerous threats to the peace of our region and the world.

His call came as two dozen Australian defence force personnel took part in the annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise involving more than 17,000 American troops as well as small contingents from other countries.

The war games have long been planned, but this year come just a month after North Korea test fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and threatened to launch another near Guam, a U.S. territory in the Western Pacific.

North Korea's official news agency condemned Australia's involvement in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills.

"This is a suicidal act of inviting disaster as it is an illustration of political immaturity, unaware of the seriousness of the current situation," the agency said in an editorial on Monday.

"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."

Getty Images
In this handout photo released by the South Korean Defense Ministry, A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber (top) fly with South Korean jets over the Korean Peninsula during a South Korea-U.S. joint live fire drill on July 8, 2017 in Korean Peninsula, South Korea.

Martin sees Australia's inclusion in North Korea's statement as a sort of positive.

When HuffPost Australia asked him if North Korea was just 'clapping back' at Turnbull's earlier tough statement about invoking the ANZUS treaty if conflict were to erupt, Martin didn't think so.

"I think it's an indication that people do listen to the Australian position on these issues, and we are an influential voice in the region, and in particular we do have an opportunity to play really quite constructive roles," he said.

"We're a state that is not nuclear armed, and we do have a certain credibility in debates regarding nuclear issues that other regional states such as China and the U.S. don't hold.

"North Korea is probably looking for constructive engagement at this point, despite the rhetoric, and Australia is a country that could play that role.

Instead Australia is caught in something of a bind because it has to talk to different actors, said Martin,

He said a lot of the rhetoric heard around backing the U.S. in a scenario where North Korea does launch an attack is about alliance management.

"So when we hear statements from the Prime Minister explicitly referencing the ANZUS treaty, we're reassuring our allies that in a scenario where an attack does occur, we'll back the U.S.," he said.

But that's only one scenario.

THOMAS PETER via Getty Images
Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford is visiting China this week after holding meetings with military officials in South Korea, where he reiterated Washington's readiness to use military means to defend its allies.

In another, it would take decades to rebuild a failed North Korea, whose 25 million people share a border with China.

"That's a scenario China would be considering, and it puts Australia's participation in any military action in a very difficult place in terms of our relationships with China."

When asked by HuffPost Australia if there could be a scenario leading to open conflict as soon as next week he replied: "we hope not."

"I think the danger is that something unexpected happens," he said.

"Both Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Trump view this as high stakes game of negotiation in many ways, this type of language fits with their characters and approaches to foreign policy.

"The hope would be that that doesn't turn into open conflict."

More On This Topic