On 6 April, the ABC’s Geraldine Doogue interviewed Nick Warner, head of the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), which coordinates the activities of Australia’s intelligence agencies. During the interview, Warner ventured the opinion that President Trump did the ‘right thing’ in walking away from Kim Jong-un at the US-North Korean Summit in Hanoi at the end of February 2019. Coming from someone whose job is to tell the government ‘how we see the world’, this value-judgement observation casts doubt on the objectivity of the information he gives ministers.
Warner has a distinguished career. Before becoming intelligence supremo he was Secretary of Defence and at another stage, head of the Regional Assistance mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI). And now, in his new capacity as head of ONI, he coordinates the activities, as he told Doogue, of the findings and speculations of 7,000 highly-motivated intelligence analysts in Australia’s ten intelligence agencies, those directed both at external targets and countries, and those with a domestic focus. This used to be the role of ONI’s predecessor, the Office of National Assessments (ONA), but they didn’t have the staff to do it.
As Warner told Doogue, ONI is a ‘major enterprise’, the outcomes of which are ‘greater than the sum of its parts’. ONI watches the world for emerging threats to Australia. So what did he mean about Trump walking away from the Hanoi Summit?
According to North Korean officials, If Trump had stayed on, he’d have received an offer from Kim of closing down the Nuclear facility at Yongpyon. This was a very substantial offer, which would have removed both North Korea’s capacity to keep making bomb-grade plutonium 239 in its reactor, and highly enriched bomb-grade uranium 235 in its centrifuges – both real steps towards total abolition of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. In return, Trump would have been asked to make some reciprocal concessions, such as signing a declaration that the Korean War was over, plus perhaps the ending of some economic sanctions. US officials later claimed that Kim demanded the abolition of all eleven existing sanctions, but a North Korean official denied this, saying they only wanted the immediate lifting of three humanitarian sanctions. The rest could be negotiated at some later iteration of the talks.
Did Warner consider this, and if so, why on earth did he say Trump did the right thing in walking away? Did he also know that John Bolton suddenly arrived in Hanoi just before Trump met Kim, to suggest to Trump that he should demand that before the US offer any concessions, North Korea be asked to declare all its chemical and biological warfare assets, and arrange to abolish them as well as his nuclear arsenal? For this suggestion, according to sources both in South Korea and the United States, was deliberately made by Bolton knowing that Kim would not accept it, and knows achieving Bolton’s objective of having the talks fail.
If Warner knows all this, and he should, why did he think failure of the talks was in Australia’s security interests? And how would the continuation of bilateral US-North Korean denuclearisation talks be inimical to Australia’s security interests? Warner may hold the strongest suspicions that Kim Jong-un’s offer to pursue de-nuclearisation may be a con job. But keeping open the possibility of step-by-step reciprocal concessions by both North Korea and the United States to reduce tensions and head off a shooting war should be seen by any Australian official as consonant with Australia’s security interests.
So what prompted Warner to say what he did? It is not his job to endorse capricious and ill-thought out decisions by the president of the United States, especially those that exacerbate an already dangerous international situation. But he’s trailed his coat here, and needs to explain to the Australian taxpayer what he meant by saying Trump ‘did the right thing’ in walking away from the summit with Kim. Does he want a return to the confrontation and name-calling between Pyongyang and Washington that could have escalated to open hostilities? Does he support what was obviously a ploy by John Bolton to ensure the talks in Hanoi would fail? How can this possibly be in Australia’s national security interests? Does Nick Warner, our leading intelligence officer, share the hawkish views of ASPI that China and North Korea are both a threat to national security and must be stood up to? If so, how would Australia do that? Or does he tell ministers what he knows they agree with?
It’s a great pity that Geraldine Doogue did not put these questions to Warner. She is supposed to have some degree of understanding of foreign policy issues, but she did not display any during her interview.
Richard Broinowski is a former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea