MACK WILLIAMS. Korea: what should Australia be doing?

Jul 6, 2018

While the pace of media reports about the Korean Peninsular has slowed a little since the Singapore Summit there has been much going on – in public and under wraps. Skepticism about the North’s commitment to the core issue of denuclearisation has grown but it is still clearly too early to form definite conclusions about where it may all end .  The central negotiations remain between the United States and the DPRK but with the ROK closely connected  there is a flourishing set of side talks between other key players and some without any direct US involvement. Foremost among the latter have been the  intra-Korean talks in which both sides seem to be working  quickly to  take advantage of the present situation to speed up cooperative endeavours across a wide range of areas. China and Russia have also  been encouraging the DPRK to follow the course by moving jointly to pressure the US to dilute the UN based sanctions – all of which will be on the agenda for Trump when he meets Putin soon and talks with Xi as he seems frequently to do.

What the US game plan actually is remains clouded by either a dysfunctional Administration or Trump’s fetish for unpredictability and playing his own hand. Since his surprise announcement in Singapore of the cancellation of Joint US/ROK military exercises and his volunteering that he agreed with Kim that they were “provocative” the US and ROK Defence establishments have worked hard at walking the decision back in practice. Details are emerging about the duration of this “cancellation”, its scope (including winding back some of the larger exercises) and establishing which smaller and regular “on the ground” US/ROK military exercises are to be covered. More recently Trump’s hard line National Security Adviser John Bolton (whom Trump had sidelined earlier from the DPRK talks for another controversial comment) has muddied the waters further by claiming that denuclearisation process could be completed in 12 months. This is not considered realistic by most US and other defence experts given the complexity of the actions required and the lack of trust involved on both sides – or by Trump! The State Department has just spoken out in similar terms. All of which has added further to the pressure Trump keeps putting on himself by his continuing praise of Kim and his optimism about a satisfactory resolution of the issue. Meanwhile, Kim has kept his powder dry by limiting DPRK comment to the bland and fluffy! The key senior officials’ teams only met earlier this week in Panmunjom for the first time since Singapore. They were preparing for Secretary of State Pompeo’s coming visit to Pyongyang and a meeting with Kim – the major step forward in the US:DPRK dialogue since Singapore when the US should really be able to assess the lie of the land ahead. And also a pointer to Pompeo’s key role in the negotiations process.

Kim has visited Beijing again presumably to clear his lines with Xi but reportedly also to urge China to water down the sanctions – as the chief trading partner of the DPRK. He has also approached Russia along the same  lines and invited Putin to visit soon. The earlier bruited visit by President Assad appears to have been pigeon holed – at least for the moment. While it is generally acknowledged that the tightening of sanctions has been a factor in Kim’s decision to change direction debate continues about just how critical they have been with some arguing that Kim is genuinely keen to lift living standards etc in the DPRK as he puts his imprimatur on his reign.

The alacrity with which Kim and Moon have embarked on implementing the commitments of their own summit has been striking. The list of initiatives they have taken together in such a short space to advance cooperation between the two Koreas is almost staggering : revived family reunions in August, establishing a Joint Liaison Office in the previously active industrial enclave of Kaesong in the DPRK and improving the road to Pyongyang, possible reopening of ROK tourism into Mt Kumgang resort area, joint inspection of DPRK main railroads to assess improvement needed to allow ROK trains to use ( eventually link into Trans Siberian etc) , both Korean teams marching under joint flag at Asian Games in Indonesia, basketball spectacular in Pyongyang with leading players ( men and women) from both countries being mixed together for games (including a recently naturalised ROK black American player!), joint survey of forestry and environment and so the list increases almost daily! The fact that much of the above would have to be regarded as sanctions busting has been acknowledged by the ROK. It poses an interesting question about how much leeway Trump will be prepared to allow Moon. Public support for Moon continues to grow to heights rarely if ever seen in the ROK while the ROK economy is beginning to suffer from the US tariff attack on ROK exports. At the recent nation-wide local government elections Moon’s party virtually annihilated the opposition party.

All the above has broadly three sets of implications for Australia : alliance management, regional and bilateral relations and opportunities for Australia in a future DPRK.

To take alliance management first there are some patently obvious lessons for Australia in our management of the alliance relationship with the US. While the writing has been on the wall for some years, the constraints on any independent Australian analysis of the geopolitics of our region have grown excessively tight and impeded any work on making Australia “Great Again” where we carried more influence in the region than we do now.  Given the degree of embeddedness we now have in the US defence security arena, the idiosyncratic Trump administration is bound to prove much more difficult for Australia to manage. We need to reduce our reliance on “feed” from the military security channels. While working  in  Washington on the fading days of Vietnam, , I recall only too vividly how we were driven to find ways of avoiding being left unbriefed and politically exposed by the whim of Nixon and Kissinger.  So too now Canberra should avoid getting too far out in front in an any commentary about the developing scene in Korea. Parrot calls about ‘giving it a red hot go’ by the Prime Minster or worse ‘keeping your foot on his neck’ ( an inelegant expression for maintaining sanctions) by Foreign Minister Bishop do little to instill confidence in Canberra’s calling of the Trump game. The rushed and pathetic offer of some inspectors to any denuclearisation effort in the DPRK smacks of much the same – an effort to tag along. We would be much more constructive in support of an eventual satisfactory resolution of the Korean crisis if we were to divert more of the homeland security largesse to strengthening our diplomatic presence in Korea, the rest of North Asia and even in the US to ensure that we could be better placed to earn a role. Sadly we have been holier than the Pope about North Korea for decades – even to the point where Canberra impeded any private Australian education connections in the DPRK when the US itself  and the British and many of Europeans were on the ground. Now might not be an easy time to strengthen our links with Pyongyang but we are accredited from Seoul and either a small permanent presence there or more concentrated coverage from Seoul could be a useful role for us to play ( and incidentally not unhelpful to the US and ROK). Of course, that might also require a little less chest thumping from our politicians.

At a regional and bilateral level, we are dealing with three of our four largest export markets – not just China – and we have a very direct national interest in what happens there. We have always had a strongly bipartisan relationship with the ROK – in both countries. In the process ahead, short of a major breakdown, it will be important to maintain very close relations with the ROK Government as it tries to pursue its own way with the DPRK which may well take it close to the wind with Trump. All the more as it appears that a new  catchphrase for the South looks like being ”reconciliation and economic integration” with the North – avoiding “reunification” (which could well prove tricky with the DPRK) which will run up against sanctions. We must avoid taking sides on this one between Washington and Seoul – with China backing Korea.

Though yet the risk of military confrontation in North Korea is far from being averted, Australia should be preparing contingency plans now for that possibility or even of it being minimised substantially . As Geoff Raby and Dennis Argall have both reported earlier in this blog there have been a number of occasions when  ideas of how such a North Korea might look have been floated among officials. Back in the 1990’s when I was Ambassador in Seoul we did quite a bit of work on this possible eventuality. The essence of the analysis was that a peaceful DPRK with a population of 22 million or so could be the potential launchpad for a second Korean economic miracle which could well prove to be a significant export market for Australia – providing generally similar product to that which we currently export to the ROK. The thinking then was that in any such DPRK there would be strong competition between China and the ROK to develop its economic potential. There were several prototypes in the mix but one was that of a joint ROK chaebol/Chinese  venture where the chaebol could provide the Korean speaking management. Another was a straight out chaebol venture – particularly Hyundai whose patron born in the North had reportedly close contact with the Kim dynasty. The then woman chairperson of Hyundai visited Pyongyang several times as the guest of Kim Jong-il and led negotiations for the creation of the Kaesong industrial zone in which Hyundai had a lead role. Another, POSCO (then Australia’s largest single customer in the world) had very clear aims of establishing on the ground in the North. The leading Australian exporters to POSCO recognised that potentially they might find it more rewarding to piggy back POSCO into the DPRK than try to establish their own direct presence in Pyongyang. Similarly other big Australian clients like KEPCO and KORGAS certainly have long prepared plans to move into the North.

Currently there could well be similar arguments for trailing Chinese companies into the DPRK. Much, of course, could hinge on the political scene and Seoul and Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang. Of course, as Trump already joked about in Singapore with his offer of a group of New York property developers, the US would likely want to tread its own all too familiar path with the likes of the big construction companies like Halliburton. Many of the multinationals are well  down the track. For example, after a pretty tough fight years ago Coca Cola awarded its not yet existent bottling rights in the DPRK to one of its Chinese bottlers against the plea of the South Korean bottler (previously CCAmatil and now LG). Then also one would have to expect the World bank and IMF to have a significant interest in a peaceful DPRK. 10 years ago Sydney University trained a group of middle level Foreign Affairs officers from Pyongyang funded by UNDP to study how to prepare project applications.

There would also be merit in dusting off the old files in Canberra on such cases as the major electricity transmission needs of the DPRK and the rehabilitation of the coal mining industry ( Joint Coal Board of NSW)  in the DPRK funded by Australia over 20 years ago. So also would the files on the KEDO project as something along those lines might re-emerge as a means of boosting energy production quickly. Of interest, I learned at the ground break ceremony in the DPRK that the then DPRK electricity network could not handle the KEDO output which seemed destined to be exported to the ROK for dollars! All of which endorses the comments above about the need for more resources ( and open ideas) to be deployed in Pyongyang and Seoul.

Mack Williams is a former Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea




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