SUE WAREHAM. Open letter: Parliament, not ministers, must decide Australia’s response to a Korean war

Oct 12, 2017

The possibility of war between the United States and North Korea – particularly a war triggered by one too many provocative moves by an unpredictable leader, leading to miscalculation or misinterpretation – continues to threaten millions of people. The consequences of any such war, even a “conventional” one, would be dire.

About 76 million Koreans (51 million in the South, 25 million in the North) would be directly affected, with populations far beyond also likely to be targeted. A nuclear war would have consequences of global proportions, possibly terminal for the world as we know it, with environmental impacts adding to an unprecedented human catastrophe.

Given the stakes, it is imperative that the situation be brought to a halt, then reversed, as a matter of urgency.

While it is for the US and North Korea principally to settle their differences, it is unlikely they will do this alone given their intransigent positions. The existing structure of the six parties – the US, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, the countries with most at stake – provides the best diplomatic framework to reduce tension and for mediation.

Australia should further this process.

That means we should desist from adding fuel to the fire with provocative or one-sided statements. North Korea believes this is a life or death matter for its future sovereign protection. Regardless of whether it is correct to take that view, it should be recognised and respected in diplomatic responses.

As for the question of any Australian military role, article one of the ANZUS treaty obliges its parties to “settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means”, and includes no obligation for us to go to war automatically alongside the US.

Australia, instead of declaring a “joined at the hip” policy towards the US – a policy that takes on new and alarming meaning in the age of Donald Trump – must uphold the United Nations charter, which outlaws wars of aggression. Ministers who repeatedly refer to Australia’s regard for the rule of law must ensure that, unlike our approach to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, we apply it rigorously.

Simply expressing support for strict economic sanctions – which, unlike sanctions targeted at leaders, will primarily punish civilians, as they did in Iraq – will not hasten a resolution to this crisis.

Australia should make clear that we will take no part in US military moves that could be interpreted as aggressive, provocative or that violate the UN charter. The recent US decision to increase its strategic forces in the vicinity and fly B-1B bombers close to North Korea’s border, while rationalised in terms of “deterrence”, may well increase the possibility of war by accident or miscalculation, especially if North Korea believes a pre-emptive attack is imminent and seeks to strike first.

Regrettably, Australia’s overall approach to the problem of nuclear weapons appears selective. The Australian government steadfastly refuses to join most nations by supporting the newly adopted UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty applies the same standards to all nations, including our allies, and is the most promising nuclear-disarmament initiative in decades.

Australia has made much of the World War I centenary while ignoring one of its primary lessons: the ease with which catastrophic wars can begin and the near impossibility of stopping them once begun. Moreover, Australia’s process of deciding to go to war remains stuck in the past. At the very least, any decision to use military force against North Korea should be debated and voted on by both houses of Parliament, as other countries do.

There are key questions about the strategy of any proposed war, the diplomatic efforts that have been made and exhausted, the predicted human costs and how refugees, wounded civilians and other casualties will be cared for, the consequences of “doing nothing” militarily, and the political impacts of yet more Western bombing. All these questions demand answers.

A government that fails to expose a proposal to go to war to democratic scrutiny will bear the heavy responsibility of the outcome, as will an opposition that falls neatly into line behind “national security” without even asking the key questions, let alone waiting for answers.

Whatever transpires on the Korean peninsula, our nation will be better served by having Australia’s response debated and determined in the body we elect to oversee the nation’s interest: the Federal Parliament.


  • Paul Barratt, president, Australians for War Powers Reform, and former secretary, Defence Department
  • Professor Gillian Triggs, former president, Australian Human Rights Commission
  • John Menadue, former secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
  • Dr Alison Broinowski, author and former Australian diplomat
  • Elizabeth Evatt, commissioner, International Commission of Jurists
  • Professor John Langmore, University of Melbourne
  • Dr Margaret Beavis, president, Medical Association for Prevention of War’s Australian
  • Douglas Newton, historian and author
  • Andrew Farran, trade adviser, international lawyer and former diplomat
  • Professor Richard Tanter, University of Melbourne
  • Peter Timmins, 2017 press freedom medal recipient
  • Emeritus Professor Joseph A. Camilleri, La Trobe University
  • Professor Rob Moodie, University of Melbourne
  • Emeritus Professor Michael Hamel-Green, co-chair, Panel on Peace and Security in North-east Asia
  • James O’Neill, barrister
  • Kellie Merritt, social worker and widow of Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel
  • Professor Ramesh Thakur, co-convenor, Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament
  • Dr Judy Hemming, University of Canberra
  • Associate Professor Tilman Ruff, co-president, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
  • Professor Peter Stanley, UNSW Canberra
  • Dr David Stephens, historian
  • Richard Broinowski, NSW president, Australian Institute of International Affairs
  • Dr Michael McKinley, Australian National University
  • Kellie Tranter, lawyer and human rights activist
  • Tony Kevin, author and retired diplomat
  • Dr Sue Wareham, secretary, Australians for War Powers Reform

This letter first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 10 October 2017

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