Commentary | 14 March 2017

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un keeps going ballistic

Originally published in the Australian on 14 March 2017. 

Originally published in the Australian on 14 March 2017. 

North Korea’s 'Supreme Leader' and serial provocateur, Kim Jong-un, continues to thumb his nose at the world. Last week’s ballistic missile test demonstrates Kim’s ability to strike Japan with multiple nuclear weapons and is the latest, worrying evidence of North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, and Australia’s deteriorating security environment.

Kim’s nuclear belligerence and game-changing missile tests should be a wake-up call for Malcolm Turnbull to get serious about ballistic missile defence as the best protection against a North Korean nuclear strike against Australia and a wider conflict in Asia that could have catastrophic consequences for the whole world.

Australia has been working on ballistic missile defence since at least 2004, when the Howard government gave the green light for limited co-operation with the US. In 2014, the joint communique issued after the Australia-US ministerial consultation took this co-operation a step further by announcing the establishment of a bilateral working group 'to examine options for potential Australian contributions to ballistic missile defence in the region'.

In the light of North Korea’s nuclear weapons advances, two of these options should be pursued as a priority. The world-class Australian-invented Jindalee radar network could help identify and track North Korean ballistic missiles by working in a more integrated way with the space monitoring facilities at Pine Gap and Geraldton. And SM-3 missiles should be acquired for our three new air warfare destroyers to enable them to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles.

The AWDs are already configured to carry the SM-3. Their Aegis combat systems, the world’s most advanced, would allow them to operate seamlessly with similarly equipped Aegis ships in the US and Japanese fleets to form an embryonic region-wide missile defence shield. This would be a sensible evolution of the US-designed Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system.

THAAD can locate, identify and destroy North Korean ballistic missiles in all phases of their flight trajectory. Kim’s nukes ought to remind us of the central importance of the US nuclear umbrella for Australia’s security. It remains the major deterrent to a North Korean nuclear attack. If the Americans were not willing to provide this umbrella then Japan, South Korea and other threatened countries undoubtedly would consider acquiring their own nuclear weapons.

The longer Kim gets away with his nuclear blackmail, the greater the chance that others will follow as the disincentives for developing nuclear weapons weaken.

The problem with North Korea is not just that it has violated a raft of UN sanctions in developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them, or that it is threatening the US and its allies with nuclear attack. It is the norm-defying, rules-breaking nature of the regime itself.

North Korea is a nepotistic mafia state where political legitimacy flows from a unique, ­pseudo-religious messianism constructed around the persona of Kim Jong-un, the most unpredictable and violent member of the Kim dynasty.

Let’s not forget that grandfather Kim Il-sung, the 'Great Leader', tried to assassinate the South Korean president in 1969 and succeeded in killing 17 senior South Korean officials, including several cabinet members, in 1983. His son, 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il, instituted a targeted program to eliminate North Korean defectors in the 1990s, and in 2010 launched an unprovoked submarine attack on a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 of its crew.

But Kim Jong-un surpasses them in his penchant for ruthless, cold-blooded violence. The nerve-agent assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam, precipitating a diplomatic crisis with once friendly Malaysia, is testimony to his murderous proclivities and total disregard of the consequences.

When it comes to state-sponsored violence, the ruling Kim dynasty has form. This, along with an 'us against the world' mentality, makes the hermit state a particularly dangerous adversary.

Among the other nuclear powers, there is an uneasy stability that makes it unlikely one of them would actually fire a nuclear weapon for fear of retaliation. The prospect of mutually assured destruction has kept the nuclear peace for nearly 70 years.

Unfortunately, the callow, untested Supreme Leader is proving to be a reckless risk-taker. He may not be certifiably crazy but a nuclear miscalculation by Kim leading to a full-blown conflict cannot be ruled out, so we had better plan for the worst.

The US, Japan and South Korea are taking the threat extremely seriously and we need to do the same because Australia is also a potential target for North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

So long a bulwark against distant threats, our geography no longer affords us protection against North Korea’s long-range ballistic missiles or from the resultant geopolitical instability that is already adversely affecting our allies and major trading partners in northeast Asia.

Imagine that instead of friendly, congenial New Zealand across the Tasman we had Kim’s North Korea firing nuclear capable missiles into the sea less than 200km from Sydney or Brisbane, and you get a sense of why Japan and South Korea consider North Korea an existential threat.

Seoul has long been in range of North Korean’s short-range missiles and about 8000 artillery ­pieces that could devastate the South Korean capital within hours — not to mention the hundreds of thousands of North Korean troops likely to pour out of massive hidden tunnel systems along the demilitarised zone if hostilities, never formally ended following the 1953 Korean War, were to resume.

But the recently acquired ability to arm these missiles with nuclear warheads means that Kim can destroy South Korea as a functioning society, since the south has no effective means of defending against them.

Lacking a workable defensive missile shield of its own, it’s hardly surprising Seoul has turned to Washington for assistance by agreeing to host a THAAD battery on its soil, despite domestic resistance and the likely election of the dovish Moon Jae-in to replace the disgraced Park Geun-hye, whose impeachment was last week upheld by the constitutional court.

Moon has already conceded it will be difficult to reverse the decision of the interim government to speed up the THAAD deployment. THAAD has been fiercely resisted by Beijing because the powerful X-band radar, which forms the heart of the system, can see thousands of kilometres into China from the outskirts of Seoul, allowing the US to potentially shoot down Chinese missiles, putting at risk China’s missile-centric military strategy in which it has invested billions of dollars. However, China’s threats of retribution are unlikely to delay or derail the planned THAAD deployment to South Korea, which is scheduled to be fully operational by the end of April.

Japan and the US have an even bigger problem as the likeliest targets for Kim’s nukes. By launching four missiles simultaneously, Kim has demonstrated a previously unseen capacity to overwhelm Japan’s limited ballistic missile defence system with saturation attacks, threatening Tokyo and other major Japanese cities as well as the 54,000 US military personnel based in Japan and their 40,000 dependants.

Given the high stakes, Japan is likely to ramp up its military spending and sign on to THAAD, which will further aggravate tensions with China, as well as North Korea. As the US is the only country with the military clout to do something about the North Korean nuclear threat, all eyes are on Donald Trump to see what the novice President will do.

Among the responses under consideration by the White House are pre-emptive military strikes against North Korea’s ballistic missile launchers; redeploying US tactical nuclear missiles to South Korea nearly 25 years after they were withdrawn; completely isolating North Korean banks from the international financial system; and disrupting North Korean missiles with cyber and electronic attacks before they can be launched, a tactic Barack Obama used with some success in the last three years of his presidency.

Ultimately China, not the US, will determine the outcome of Kim’s irresponsible nuclear adventurism, so Australia ought to encourage Beijing to place pressure on its truculent neighbour.

The Chinese may not like having THAAD on their southern doorstep but it is disingenuous to criticise the South Korean and Japanese governments for taking reasonable steps to defend their country from Pyongyang’s hostile actions. Would China do otherwise if the situation were reversed?

Although it temporarily has cut off vital coal imports from North Korea, China’s willingness to fully embrace the kind of tough sanctions that could bring Kim to heel has been compromised by longstanding fraternal ties and overblown fears that economic pressure might cause North Korea to collapse.

Prime Minister Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop should press China to take a direct leadership role in helping to resolve what is shaping up as the gravest security crisis in Asia for many decades. A good start would be to reinforce the views of a growing number of influential Chinese officials and opinion leaders who believe North Korea has become a political and strategic liability for their country.

China’s rivalry with the US has blinded it to the fact North Korea’s intransigence is bringing about the geopolitical outcome it most fears — a US missile defence system on its doorstep, a rejuvenated alliance between the US, Japan and South Korea, and increasing isolation in the region.

Kim has not only ignored pressure from Beijing to tone down his inflammatory rhetoric and provocative missile tests, he also has publicly criticised his northern neighbour for banning coal imports, mocking China for 'dancing to the tune' of the US. And Kim’s decision to eliminate his half-brother was taken in the full knowledge that Jong-nam enjoyed high-level protection in Beijing.

Unless China changes its attitude there will be endless opportunities for Kim to blackmail his patron, confident in the knowledge that, no matter how bad his behaviour, China will tolerate his excesses because it worries endlessly about the consequences of regime change in North Korea.

So it is facile for China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi to argue the 'nuclear issue is mainly between North Korea and the US'. North Korea is as much a problem for China as it is for the US. And it’s not only about nukes. The real issue is the unacceptable behaviour of a regime that is destabilising the region, trashing non-proliferation norms, assassinating its victims with arrogant impunity, using proscribed chemical weapons, and smuggling arms, drugs, and counterfeit money to fund its nuclear weapons program.