North Korea’s Nuclear Missiles: The Fantasy and the Reality of Australia’s Response

On 4 July 2017 North Korea fired a missile from their territory that landed in the Sea of Japan.  Western commentators immediately labeled it an ICBM with the capability of reaching Alaska, and by implication, the north of Australia.

The “threat” posed by North Korea’s missile test has dominated the strategic commentaries ever since.  It was personified by a major article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 July 2017 by political editor Peter Hartcher.  Hartcher quoted a number of defence “experts”, all of whom assumed:

  • That it was, in fact, an ICBM;
  • That North Korea had, or would shortly have, the capacity to fit a nuclear warhead to the missile;
  • That such a development posed an existential threat to Australia; and,
  • That Australia had no current defence against such a development and there was therefore an urgent need to acquire an anti-missile defence system to protect Australia.

In support of that last point, Hartcher quoted Foreign Minister Julie Bishop saying that “North Korea is a threat directly to Australia,” and former G.W. Bush adviser Mike Green, now of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, that Australia should “absolutely” be considering setting up a missile defence system.

There is an acknowledgement, quoting Labor defence spokesman Richard Marles, that there is doubt that the Defence Department has any confidence in the efficacy of American anti-missile defence systems, and that for Australia the “risk is too small and the cost too great.”

The North Korean missile test raises a number of geopolitical and defence issues, none of which have been adequately addressed.  Some of the more important of those issues will now be addressed within the framework of the four assumptions (a) to (d) above.

  • Was it an ICBM? Despite the claims of the Americans in particular, and the assumptions of the Australian commentators, there is doubt that the missile was, in fact, an ICBM.  In a report provided to the UN Security Council, the Russian Ministry of Defence stated that the missile flew only 535km and reached an altitude of 510km before falling into the Sea of Japan.

Confirmation or rebuttal of the Russian claim is readily available, not least from the Americans themselves from their satellite and radar tracking facilities, but they have neither confirmed nor denied the Russian report.  Instead there has been an escalation of tensions, with US warships being dispatched to Korean waters, and American UN Ambassador Nikki Haley issuing direct threats of unilateral US military action.1  That such threats are neither justified nor have any basis in international law seemingly leaves Australian commentators untroubled.

By contrast, the Russian and Chinese governments issued a joint statement on 4 July condemning the North Korean missile test as unacceptable and a breach of relevant Security Council resolutions.  More importantly, however, the two governments propose a specific set of measures aimed at defusing tensions on the Korean peninsula and creating the terms for a peaceful resolution of the problem.2

These proposals were based on earlier proposals put forward by China that required a “freeze” on missile activities by both North Korea and the United States, a stop to large scale joint South Korean and US military exercises that directly threaten North Korea; and steps taken to progressively demilitarize the Korean peninsula.

The US rejected the proposed action, just as it had earlier rejected the Chinese proposal.  As has been detailed elsewhere, there is a long history of US actions sabotaging a potential resolution of Korean issues.

It is a legitimate question to ask as to why there has been this prolonged negative history, and why the US would not welcome the proposals put forward by Russia and China as marking at least the beginning of an opportunity for a genuine reduction in a dangerous situation.  They are questions the Australian government, and their echo chamber in the media, are unwilling to ask.

  • North Korea’s Nuclear Delivery Capability. We do not know if North Korea currently has the technical capability or not to deliver a nuclear armed ICBM to a distant target, although the weight of evidence would suggest not. It would be unwise to assume that the technical capability will not be reached sooner or later.  The more important question for Australia is, does it matter either way, and what is the appropriate policy response?

There are a large number of countries between North Korea and Australia, a distance of more than 5000km, but there is a conspicuous lack of evidence that with the possible exceptions of South Korea and Japan, any of them are rushing to develop an anti-missile capability.  The most probable reason for that is that they have no legitimate reason to fear that they might be a target.  Even if there was a remote hypothetical threat, they are also aware that embarking on an expensive anti-missile program would have no practical effect.

In the case of South Korea and Japan, their proximity to North Korea would mean that the radioactive fallout would also contaminate North Korea itself.  There are also a large number of US military bases in South Korea, Okinawa and the Japanese mainland that any attack on them would result in massive retaliation by the US, reducing North Korea to rubble again, whether radioactive or not.  There is no evidence that Kim is suicidal.

  • Is There a Threat To Australia? Technically yes, at least once North Korea actually does have an ICBM capability and the warhead technology to match.  The more important question, however, is why would Australia be a target?  Kim has apparently made remarks about Australia being targetable on the basis of Australia’s relationship with the US.  Again, that is a theoretical possibility, but what would it achieve in practical terms?  There is no evidence that any benefit would accrue to North Korea by attacking Australia.  A remote possibility is apparently insufficient to reassure Australian defence planners.

Instead, Australia’s historical defence strategy has been to rely on the US as its security guarantor, repeated as recently as 16 July when Julie Bishop appeared on the ABC’s Insiders program.  This strategy assumes in effect that an attack upon Australia would result in retaliation by the United States. That is an increasingly heroic assumption.

From a strategic point of view that assumption creates two major possibilities.  The first is that if the US does, in fact, respond to an attack upon Australia by North Korea with a response using, as Nikki Haley would have it, full American military might, then North Korea would suffer the same outcome as described under scenario (b) above.

Alternatively, however, if the US decided that it was not in its own national security issue to retaliate, than what has been the point of the past seventy years of blind obeisance to the US’s geopolitical ambitions?

Australia has joined a whole series of US inspired wars, including but not limited to the ongoing disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and before them in Vietnam.  These wars have had no strategic value to Australia, notwithstanding the mainstream media propaganda and the absurd claims of politicians to the contrary.

Joining such wars, ignoring the atrocities perpetrated by allies upon Palestine and Yemen, and joining in the ill-founded demonization of Libya, Russia and Iran among other places have all essentially been the payment of insurance premiums.  ANZUS, the alleged cornerstone of that insurance policy, is in reality no more than a promise to “consult”.  It is not a guarantee than an attack upon one will be regarded as an attack upon the all, which characterizes the NATO Treaty.  Trump’s refusal to reaffirm that particular point in a recent speech was treated with alarm the US’s NATO allies, but its obvious implications for ANZUS, which is much weaker, was completely ignored in Australia.  The actual terms of the ANZUS Treaty and its implications is one of the cruelest deceptions perpetrated upon the Australian public over many decades.

  • Australia Therefore Needs its Own Missile Defence System? There are three major anti-missile defence systems on the world market. Two of them would probably work in the Australian context, and the third almost certainly not.  Of the former two systems, the better known is the Russian S400 series, recently purchased by Turkey, nominally at least still a member of NATO, as well as India.  The other anti-missile system, almost certainly not available to Australia, is the Chinese High Powered Microwave System (HPM).  As an article in The Diplomat (11 March 2017) recently explained this system “undermines the efficacy of even the most advanced US missiles.”

This fact points to two related vulnerabilities of the third anti-missile option and the one most likely to be favoured by Australia in the event of a decision to buy such a system, the US Patriot system.  The version of this system that is even remotely useful for Australia is the PAC-2..  The PAC-2, however, relies upon a satellite in orbit to provide it with data necessary for its guidance.  Australia does not have such satellites and would therefore be wholly reliant upon the Americans for such access.  Even if access were granted, the satellites could be disabled by the Chinese HPM defences.  In short, a very expensive white elephant, much like the F35 fighter and the submarines recently contracted for with France.

What if a Real Enemy Attacked Us?  Posturing about the potential North Korean “threat” to one side, the country that possesses the real capacity to attack Australia is China.  Such an attack is highly unlikely and would only enter their strategic equation because of Australia’s military links to the US, particularly through the spy base at Pine Gap, and several other US military bases in Australia.

The Chinese missile system applicable here is the Dongfeng41, which has 8-10 independently targetable nuclear warheads; has an operational range of 12,000-15,000km; and a top speed of Mach25.  There is no western system capable of defending against it.

A related weapon in the Chinese armoury is the Dongfeng21D, which according to the US National Air and Space Intelligence Centre, is the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile. It has a range of 1450km and can be fired from mobile land based systems.  Its speed, accuracy and a variety of other technical features render US aircraft carriers, the cornerstone of US military projection, into expensive death traps.

Conclusion

Given the inability of Australia to defend itself against a real missile attack, the question then becomes, why is there such a drumbeat about the alleged danger of North Korea to us?

The evidence suggests two possible explanations, not necessarily incompatible.  The first is that manufacturing a dire threat offers a golden opportunity to promote the sale of American weaponry.  There are plenty of examples of this tactic, a recent one being the “Iranian nuclear threat” being used to justify the installation (20/11/13) of expensive anti-missile systems and other military-based measures in several European countries. The Iranian nuclear furphy has long since been exposed for what it was.  It has now been replaced by a resurrection of the “Russian threat”, accompanied by an unpararelled demonization of that country and its President Vladimir Putin. One consequence has been the eastward march of NATO to the Russian borders.  Just who is threatening whom is not a question the Australian media are willing to address.

The other principal purpose served by constant reiteration of the “North Korean threat” is that it justifies the continued US military presence in East Asia, an area geographically remote from the US.  Australian politicians persist in calling that presence a force for stability and peace in the region, apparently without a hint of irony.  Again, the rhetoric and the reality are a mismatch.

All of the US’s actions and statements with regard to Asia, from the Korean War, through Vietnam and up to and including Obama’s “pivot” to the present rhetoric can be understood within the framework of a single strategic concept: the maintenance of American hegemony and with it the encirclement and containment of the greatest threat to that hegemony, China.

That policy is doomed to fail, but it carries inordinate risks to Australia.  Instead of confronting that risk and formulating defence and foreign policy priorities that reflect Australia’s national interest, Australia is clinging to policies that no longer resonate in a changing world.  In the words of  Stuart Rollo (10 July 2017) Australia is “sleepwalking along a path of military confrontation, incapable and unwilling to diverge from American security priorities where they do not reflect our own.”

Instead of having a rational and informed public dialogue about these issues, our politicians, urged on by the mainstream media, seem instead to continue with manifestly failed policies of the past.  Where our very survival as a nation is at issue, a major rethink is long overdue.

  1. Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 2017. []
  2. Statement of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Number 1317, 4 July 2017. []

James O'Neill is a Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at joneill@qldbar.asn.au. Read other articles by James.