While in recent weeks North East Asia has been on the edge of a precipice, the likelihood is that the military stalemate will grind on indefinitely. A decisive act by any of the principal parties would lead all into negative territory. Only an unlikely unilateral move by Kim Jong-un to abandon his nuclear/missile ambitions would alter the equation.
Some believe that the ultimate of sanctions – a total embargo on North Korean oil imports, enforced by China – would do the trick. But nothing seems further from the case.
First, with Kim Jong-un having gone this far, there can for him be no turning back. He expects to be a legend one way or another which will not be achieved by capitulation.
Secondly, North Korea would have made contingency plans to deal with the effects of the most extreme of trade measures. These plans would include stockpiles of essential materials and, in the case of oil, there are other ways of acquiring liquefied hydrocarbons, particularly from coal. North Korea has for this purpose almost unlimited supplies of anthracite coal and the technology to liquefy it. It could also convert crops to diesel or ethanol. The Germans did this successfully with the former in the Second World War. Presumably also North Korea will continue to acquire necessary machinery and technology on the international black market as before.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin was right to assert that even in desperate situations sanctions are objectively ineffective and cause collateral economic damage to third parties. Secondary boycotts, as in the industrial arena, have unjustifiable and unintended consequences, such as would sanctions against China’s trading partners if China were to decline to enforce extreme sanctions against North Korea. The ensuing trade war would be devastating both for China and the US, not to mention Australia’s iron ore producers and woolgrowers in particular.
These trade measures were believed to be the card that would bring North Korea to heel, considering that unilateral military measures by the US would risk the death of millions and the probable destruction of much of South Korea and enormous damage to Japan. Both of these countries, were their political systems to survive, would almost certainly abandon their security alliances with the US and either take up the nuclear option for themselves or, less likely, turn totally passive.
If the stalemate were to endure indefinitely, with the US virtually immobilised thereby, they may choose the former option anyway. For China an indefinite stalemate would alter the balance of power in the region which is why the US believes it cannot allow this to happen. Its strategic pre-eminence would be lost. South East Asian countries would probably choose to align their positions with China, including in the South China Sea. ASEAN would be a mere echo of what it might have become, and Australian foreign policy would be in disarray.
All of this would certainly be precipitated by any disastrous pre-emptive action by the US. Has Australia fully digested the implications of that? For its part the best that might be hoped for is that our security partners will be content to adopt a policy of ‘containment’ of North Korea, including the use of cyber tools and other aggressive non-military measures, on former Cold War lines? This could go on for a long time but might eventually result in the internal overthrow of the inherently unstable Kim dictatorship without a total implosion and with the prospect of the retention of practical governance in North Korea afterwards.
A change of strategic circumstances may be on the cards anyway. The first consideration would be that total security dependence on the US would become more problematical. The second is that our region, particularly South East Asia, would continue to be far from settled, recycling old histories and rivalries without a basis secure enough for substantial institutional advancement.
Diplomatically we should be playing a cool game and not entangling ourselves in issues and conflicts that do not directly concern us or engage our national interests. Whether Australia should seek a diplomatic role in the present Korean crisis, on the ground that it is a party to the 1950s UN Command, questions its relevance today. What useful contribution could Australia make when militarily it would be out of its league; and if there is to be a diplomatic settlement it should come from the established Six-Party Talks (South Korea, North Korea, USA, China, Japan and Russia) still in the frame.
Broadly, Australia should be more respectful of international law and legal processes, including those for conflict resolution, as would a good international citizen. This way we could not only enhance our security and respect for it, but assist our region to engage in stable and secure cooperation without being compromised by being cap in hand with external powers.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade adviser and senior academic in public and international law.