Australia and North Korea: Dangerous Illusions Place Australia at Risk

The war of words between North Korea and the United states reached new heights last week.  US President trump pledged to meet any further threats by North Korea to the US “with fire and fury like the world has never seen”.  North Korea’s response was a threat to vaporize Guam, a US colony and important military base in the Pacific.

Such an escalation of rhetoric carries its own risks, including miscalculations by either side that could rapidly lead to a shooting war.  In such a situation what is needed is a period of clam reflection, especially by the American President, and the use of diplomacy rather than military action.  For all Kim Jong Un’s faults, his position is at least grounded in a knowledge of past American actions toward North Korea, and an overwhelming desire to preserve the Kim regime.  There is no such certainty with the American leader or his country’s policies.

Since 1945, when the Americans following the defeat of Japan arbitrarily divided Korea at the 38th Parallel, the peninsula has been bedeviled by constant tension, including a devastating war in the early 1950s that killed more than 2 million North Koreans (20% of its population) and destroyed cities, towns and villages, as well as their infrastructure.

That war never formally ended.  An important step toward reducing tensions would be a commitment by both sides to seriously negotiate a peace treaty.  Post war history is not encouraging in that regard.

Notwithstanding the absence of a peace treaty, North Korea and the United States have entered a series of agreements.  North Korea signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in December 1985, and a further non-proliferation agreement came into force in May 1992.

A further wide-ranging agreement was made in October 1994 between North Korea and the Clinton administration.  The US reneged on that agreement almost immediately.  A further preliminary agreement was reached in September 2005 following the six party talks (China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the US).

As recently as November 2010 North Korea was willing to end its nuclear program, accept IAEA inspections, and conclude a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice.  The US has consistently refused to sit down with North Korea and engage in negotiations.

Instead, the US has engaged in a series of continual provocative moves.  In this century alone, North Korea has been labeled part of the “axis of evil” in George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address; held regular military exercises in South Korea and the adjoining sea; flown nuclear armed bombers over the Korean peninsula; and recently installed the THAAD missile system, allegedly for defence purposes but in reality part of the military encirclement of China, one of North Korea’s few friends.

US conduct elsewhere, including the invasion and destruction of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, as well as continuous military interventions either directly or by proxy in a host of nations, and most recently the illegal entry into the Syrian war are a clear signal of the steps the US is prepared to take in pursuit of its geopolitical objectives.  Kim is right to be skeptical and to seek a nuclear capability.  He knows that ever since the American humiliation in Vietnam the US has never attacked any country capable of fighting back.

The noted US war hawk, Senator Lindsay Graham, has said that he told Trump that if all else failed (unspecified) Trump must order a military strike, which although bad for the Korean peninsula, China and Japan, would have the virtue of occurring “over there.”  Graham claimed that Trump made similar statements to him, and that since then Trump has said nothing to indicate that Graham’s account of their conversation was inaccurate. ((Jonathon Marshall. “Hurtling toward fire and fury“, 10 August 2017.))

Graham is correct at least in saying that a war would be “bad for” both Koreas, China and Japan.  North Korea has a formidable armoury of non-nuclear options, including biological weapons able to destroy Japan and an artillery capability that could flatten Seoul within an hour of an outbreak of war.  China would likely face a huge influx of refugees that it does not want.  North Korea also has the capacity to put nuclear bombs on civilian ships and sail them into American harbours.  So a war would not only be “bad for” North Asia.

It is in this context that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made what must rank as one of the most stupid and ill-considered remarks since former Prime Minister Harold Holt’s infamous “all the way with LBJ” preceded Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and another former Prime Minister John Howard’s fatuous claim to being the US’s “deputy sheriff in the Pacific” during the GW Bush era.

In comments made to a Melbourne radio station on 4 August 2017, Turnbull said:

Let’s be very clear.  If there is an attack on the US by North Korea, then the ANZUS Treaty will be invoked and Australia will come to the aid of the United States, just as if there was an attack on Australia the United States would come to our aid.

Be under no misapprehension, in terms of defence we are joined at the hip.

That statement assumes a number of things, none of them carrying the degree of certitude Turnbull professes.  It is common for Australian politicians to invoke the ANZUS Treaty as the “bedrock” or the “cornerstone” of Australia’s defence strategy.  But is that valid?

The Treaty was signed in 1951 and came into force on 29 April 1952.  It has been invoked only once, by John Howard in response to the events of 11 September 2001.  As a result of those events, the US and Australia attacked Afghanistan, which manifestly had not attacked the United States, and sixteen years later we are still there and showing no signs of leaving.

Despite the false premise upon which that attack on Afghanistan was justified, the appalling carnage wrought on the Afghan people and the current conditions there, Australia shows absolutely no sign of having learnt a single lesson.

Howard’s intervention in Iraq, done without invoking ANZUS, was, if anything, even worse, both in the lies upon which it was based, and the carnage it has created throughout the whole Middle East and elsewhere.  The Abbott-Turnbull government’s own illegal intervention in Syria has fared no better.  Neither Iraq nor Syria had attacked the United States, yet Australia joined both wars that manifestly held no strategic interest for Australia and exist solely for American geostrategic reasons.

On what possible basis therefore does Turnbull think that intervening in Korea “to come to the aid of the United States” will be other than another disastrous and unnecessary foreign adventure?  Given that North Korea is nuclear armed (unlike all other previous American victims) the actual consequences for Australia could be very much worse.

The ANZUS Treaty itself does not carry the weight imported to it by successive Australian governments.  Firstly, the preamble makes it clear it is concerned with strengthening the “fabric of peace in the Pacific Area”.  North Korea is not in the Pacific area.  It also reaffirms the faith of the parties in “the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Article 1 of the ANZUS Treaty then undertakes to settle “any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means…and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”

Nobody listening to the blustering and threats of Trump over the past few weeks and blatant illegality such as the cruise missile attack on Syria could possibly conclude that the US was “refraining from the threat or use of force,” let alone acting in compliance with the “purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”

Article III of the ANZUS Treaty obliges the parties to “consult together” whenever in the opinion of any of them “political independence or security of any of them is threatened in the Pacific.”

Article IV is commonly seen as the key clause, but is misunderstood and widely misused. It recognises that any armed attack would be dangerous to its own peace and security, and that it would act to meet the danger “in accordance with its constitutional processes.”

There is noting in either clause that requires any party to respond militarily to any armed attack upon one of the parties.

Importantly, that same Article requires both the attack and the measures in response to be reported to the UN Security Council.  Such retaliatory measures taken “shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”

Article IV reinforces the obligations of the parties to act in accordance with its obligations under the Charter of the UN and “the responsibility of the UN for the maintenance of international peace and security.”

In other words, Australia is not only under no obligation if the US is attacked to do other than “consult” in accordance with “constitutional processes”, it is under a positive obligation to comply with its obligations under the UN Charter.  None of these obligations have formed part of Turnbull’s rhetoric.

Articles I and IV of the ANZUS Treaty echo similar provisions in the UN Charter.  Article 2(3) of the Charter says that all members “shall settle their disputes by peaceful means. Article 51, while recognizing the right to individual or collective self-defence in the event of an armed attack upon a member, may only take such measures “until the Security Council has taken measures to maintain peace and security.”

Nothing in either the Treaty or the Charter permits the making of threats.  Even more certainly, nothing in either permits a pre-emptive attack, such as is seriously contemplated, planned for, and espoused in the United States as a way of resolving what they see as the North Korean “problem.”  Similar threats and military plans have been made against Iran, although thus far Australia has refrained from pledging its allegiance to the Americans in that scheme.

Turnbull’s ill-considered remarks show that Australia has learned nothing from its experiences with the misuse of American military might over the past 70 years. Turnbull’s statement puts Australia in the position of in effect underwriting the actions of a dangerously unpredictable “ally” whose statements and actions over many decades show a cavalier disregard for the sovereign rights of other nations, ((William Blum. America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy, Zed Book (2nd ed.) (2015).)) let alone its obligations under the UN Charter.

Turnbull appears to think that this latest pledge of Australian allegiance is actually in Australia’s interests.  The evidence for that is completely lacking.  Rather, it has left Australia yet again completely exposed to a retaliatory strike against which it has no effective defence.  That strike would not necessarily come from the North Koreans.

China has already stated that in the event of an American attack upon North Korea it will come to North Korea’s aid.  Does Australia really want a war with China?  China’s superior military technology, including but not limited to the Dong Feng 41 ICBM would mean that Australia’s involvement in such a war would last no longer than 30 minutes.

The recently passed sanctions Bill by an almost unanimous US House and Senate, apart from breaching international law, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (P+5) agreement with Iran, and infuriating America’s “allies” in Europe with its blatant self-interest, also contained a clause that the western mainstream media have failed to note.  That clause withdrew the United States from its obligations limiting intermediate range nuclear missiles, originally agreed between Reagan and Gorbachev.

Together with the blatant war mongering out of Washington, that single act alone should have raised serious alarm in Australia about the United States’ real commitment to settling disputes by peaceful means.  Australia’s servile obeisance to American actions, as personified in Turnbull’s remarks, means that Australia will yet again be dragged into another illegal war.  This time we are unlikely to escape with only damage to our international reputation.

James O'Neill is a retired Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at Read other articles by James.