ANDREW FARRAN: Korea – could nuclear war come out of clear blue sky?

A decision about joining in the Korean conflict at any point could be the most critical war decision ever taken by Australia. Parliament should be allowed the time to take it. Whatever, the  decision must not be taken by the Executive alone [Editorial in the Bulletin of Australians for War Powers Reform (Issue #55 of 27th Sept, 2017)] 

With North Korea in mind, could nuclear war come out of a clear blue sky? Experience of post-19th century conventional wars suggest that prior to the outbreak of conflict there usually was a reasonable lead time before a country found itself at war.

The First World War was preceded for decades by instabilities among rising and declining powers that anticipated change in time. There were some six weeks and a lot of diplomatic activity between the assassination in Sarajevo and the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914.

The Second World War was foreseen as inevitable by the late 1930s in spite of Neville Chamberlain’s pronouncement about “peace in our time”. The Pacific War had been planned on both sides and the US squeeze on Japanese oil and mineral imports was intended to provoke it. Pearl Harbour was a surprise when it occurred but much of the world was then already at war and a Pacific War fitted in.

Since WW2 we have had a series of conflicts, mostly extensions of previous wars or related geo-political changes as putative nations struggled for self-determination and decolonisation: Korea, Malaya and Indo-China being examples in which Australia figured. The point was that involvement was a conscious act, one of support for an ally or extended self-defence (i.e. ‘forward defence’), decided by the government of the day initially with general public support.

Where matters became stretched included Iraq and its associated conflicts. There the question of justification for intervention on grounds of self-defence became more tenuous as public opinion was more deeply divided and the government of the day made closeted decisions based on what it viewed as the ‘national interest’. In all these cases there was more than enough time for the government of the day to test its intentions before Parliament, with credible evidence, including whether it had conspired with another power prior to making a commitment – a pertinent consideration. There has been no such debate or inquiry before or since about Iraq (or Syria).

In the light of the decision to join in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, without regard either for relevant legal considerations, AWPR have been advocating that Parliament be involved before such commitments are made, not least because as a rule there would be sufficient time for consultation and debate.

This approach would be sound in most circumstances as existing or foreseen conflicts, apart from Korea at this stage, are likely to involve irregular or terrorist forces operating in third countries. For example, would military assistance to the Philippines be regarded as a simple extension of existing anti-terror deployments in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan or would it be of a different order of operations altogether requiring review first, rather than lateral creep? The domestic context in the Philippines is vastly different from that in Iraq and Syria. Not least the fact that President Duterte does not want foreign forces on the ground (as distinct from in the air).

Back to the question of war coming out of a clear blue sky. A nuclear missile attack by North Korea (DPRK) on Australia would certainly be something out of the blue and extremely unlikely. In the first place it would rate a very low priority for a regime already delicately balanced in its own region. If hostilities in the peninsular instigated by North Korea had already broken out involving nuclear weapons the probability would be that North Korea would be struggling if not already defeated and that its bluff had been called.

A DPRK nuclear attack on Japan or South Korea, and/or US area forces, would cause an automatic US response. Its likelihood is impossible to assess considering the known mental state of the protagonists and the  accompanying bellicose bluff and bluster. What may be problematic in that eventuality is the possibility that initial hostilities may not be decisive and could be followed by conventional warfare involving tens of thousands of Korean troops on both sides. A decision for Australia about joining in the conflict at that stage could be the most critical war decision ever taken by Australia. Whatever, Parliament should be allowed the time to take it. That is, the  decision must not be taken by the Executive alone.

Hopefully the North Korean impasse will be resolved by diplomacy and negotiation and nothing like the above will occur. Although it appears certain that Kim Jong-un will achieve his nuclear objective as a national defence measure it must be hoped that the now faltering nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will somehow, to some practical extent, survive current events.

Andrew Farran, a some-time diplomat, trade adviser and  senior academic in public and international law, is a former Treasurer of AWPR. 

 

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3 Responses to ANDREW FARRAN: Korea – could nuclear war come out of clear blue sky?

  1. Warren Dawson says:

    I think the “double-freeze” proposal from China and Russia is the way forward here. The United States has rejected that proposal outright – this from a country which does not border North Korea, which does not recognise the application of international law to its own global actions, and which has been incapable of concluding a treaty with North Korea to end a war that began over 60 years ago. Not looking good.

  2. Geoff Miller says:

    There’s a real clash of interests and ways of seeing the world at the bottom of the North Korea issue. North Korea believes it needs nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them to prevent nuclear blackmail and possible attack by the United States. The United States believes it needs to make North Korea reverse its chosen path of acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them to prevent nuclear blackmail and possible attack by North Korea against itself and its North Asian allies. These are both existential concerns, and the dilemma they pose is excruciating; solutions?

  3. Don Macrae says:

    Kim Jong-un’s posturing seems to me to be consistent and to have a point, that is to seriously convey to the world and the US: hands off, keep out. Do we have any reason to believe that he might do something inconsistent with that point? Initiating conflict with the US, or anyone else for that matter, certainly would be. I don’t know what we know about Kim’s ‘mental state’. About Donald Trump’s mental state, on the other hand, we know more than we should, because his inconsistent and ineffective behaviour reveals it.

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