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Australia and Korea’s wars: A debate worth revisiting

The obvious wrinkle in the PM’s ANZUS pledge is what happens if the US strikes first and North Korea retaliates by attacking South Korea.

Korean War ex-servicemen at the 2009 Anzac Day march in Melbourne (Photo:  Mattinbgn/Wikimedia Commons)
Korean War ex-servicemen at the 2009 Anzac Day march in Melbourne (Photo: Mattinbgn/Wikimedia Commons)

Tensions have temporarily abated on the Korean Peninsula, following the latest blustery exchanges between Washington and Pyongyang. In typically mercurial fashion, after threatening 'fire and fury', President Donald Trump has now praised Kim Jong-un’s 'decision' not to launch missiles at Guam as 'very wise and well reasoned'. The current situation resembles a phoney war, in fact. With no fundamental resolution in sight, tensions are bound to return. When they do, so will the question of Australia’s potential involvement in hostilities between the US and North Korea.

Last week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull surprised some by pre-emptively offering to invoke the ANZUS security treaty in case North Korea attacks the US: 'Australia would come to the aid of the United States, as America would come to our aid if we were attacked', he said. Turnbull caveated this statement by adding that it 'will depend on the circumstances and the consultations with our allies'. Wasn’t Turnbull, as Rod Lyon claims in a typically thoughtful commentary, simply stating 'the bleeding obvious'?

Critics, including former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, were quick to lambast Turnbull as 'irresponsible' for offering the US a 'blank cheque'. Lowy Non-Resident Fellow James Curran found fault in a similar vein, labelling the PM’s comments 'premature and unnecessary'.

Turnbull’s forward-leaning intervention does raise questions. After all, the most recent exchange of threats between Pyongyang and Washington originated from President Trump’s inflammatory 'fire and fury' comments, rather than any specific North Korean trigger. If the PM’s intention was to boost Australian credit within the alliance, does his expression of conjoined solidarity, committed in such a febrile context, risk encouraging a domestically embattled US president to engage in more bombast, or worse? Perhaps the Prime Minister’s own calculation was primarily domestic in nature; talking tough on national security at a time when the Coalition is under mounting political pressure.

Either way, the PM’s comments jarred with the more defensive tone of the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. Asked about Australia’s residual defence obligations under the 1953 Armistice at a press conference late last week, she said:

In fact we were not a party in the legal sense to the armistice so there is no automatic trigger for Australia to be involved.

Turnbull’s ANZUS comments have obscured a rather recondite debate as to whether Canberra has treaty-like obligations arising from Australia’s wartime role as a member of the 16-nation UN coalition that fought against North Korea and China from 1950-53. (I wrote recently on the revival of US interest in the UN Command (UNC), and Australia’s ongoing military role within it, here).

Former Defence Minister and Australian Ambassador to the US Kim Beazley has attached himself to the position that Australia has legally binding obligations under the Armistice arrangements, arguing recently:

We have a commitment there which is as close to automatic as we can get. It does not arise from the ANZUS alliance but from the United Nations. We are still technically at war on the Peninsula but we are signatories to an Armistice, agreed with the UN. That concluded hostilities in 1953 on the condition that should it break with an unprovoked attack by the North on the South, we would respond. That would invariably involve an attack on American forces stationed in South Korea which of course would also trigger an ANZUS consultation and the PM is clear on what would follow

The ANU’s John Blaxland has argued in similar terms. And I briefly debated the issue with ASPI’s Malcolm Davis on ABC Radio last Sunday.

The Interpreter has since re-published Andrew Selth’s 2010 post, which lays out the issues succinctly. Selth noted then that Australia has never repudiated obligations contained in the Armistice document, or subsequent statements issued under the UNC. Some time after the Armistice Agreement was signed, the 16 'sending states' that had contributed forces to the UNC made a formal statement in Washington affirming that 'if there is a renewal of the armed attack ... we should again be united and prompt to resist'.

Selth nonetheless concluded that that 'no Australian government would feel bound by historical precedent or outdated legal instruments' to re-join hostilities in Korea. Based on Bishop’s recent comments and my own conversations with senior DFAT officials, I concur that Australia does not regard itself as bound in any legal sense either by the Armistice, or its ongoing UNC membership.

I also believe this to be fundamentally correct. The Armistice agreement itself says nothing about responding to renewed North Korean aggression with force. It commits only to resolving ceasefire violations 'through negotiations', via the Military Armistice Commission. It is worth remembering South Korea itself did not sign the Armistice, because then-President Rhee Syngman wanted to continue the war. Moreover, the US subsequently and unilaterally abrogated one of the key clauses (13.d) of the Armistice, over the objections of its UN allies, circumscribing signatories from admitting major new capabilities into the Peninsula. Thus, the US maintained nuclear weapons on the Peninsula until 1991. The North Koreans, for their part, have repeatedly repudiated the Armistice.

The Armistice nonetheless remains in place, although its remit notably does not extend to the Northern Limit Line, which delineates the disputed western maritime boundary between North and South, the scene of recurrent military clashes.

Perhaps the weakest aspect to Selth’s conclusion is that the Armistice is non-binding because it is 'outdated'. The passage of time alone does not void the relevance of a useful commitment. ANZUS predates the Armistice by two years, but remains extant and clearly relevant in the eyes of the Australian and US governments (I’m grateful to Malcolm for making this point in correspondence).

All that aside, if North Korea did engage in a major act of aggression on the Korean Peninsula, the likelihood is that Australia would be at least indirectly involved in the conflict from the early stages. The fact that an Australian air force officer currently heads the UNC-Rear headquarters at Yokota air base, in Japan, virtually guarantees this. UNC-Rear consists of Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, The Philippines, Thailand, Turkey and the United Kingdom. The military reinforcement and re-supply effort would flow through Yokota and five other designated bases in Japan, mandated under a UN status of forces agreement, separate to that between the United States and Japan.

The Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap would also play a central supporting role in any US military action - including any unilateral strike for that matter – through its early warning function for ballistic missile launches out of North Korea.

With the PM’s comments last week, we now know that ANZUS would be the mechanism through which any Australian military involvement would be triggered. However, the forward elements to ADF involvement, in Korea and Japan, would probably be delivered through the existing framework of the UNC. But there is nothing binding about the latter, except in the sense of a soft, moral obligation.

This is not the final word, as they say. I would welcome further debate, not only on the Australian position. It would be interesting to hear perspectives from other UN-sending states, on how they regard their residual roles and responsibilities in Korea; legal, moral or otherwise.

Prime Minister Turnbull clearly did not intend his ANZUS comments as an endorsement of a US unilateral military operation against North Korea. As I’ve argued elsewhere, a US pre-emptive or preventive action against North Korea is the least likely pathway to a second Korean War.  Yet the obvious wrinkle in the PM’s ANZUS pledge is what happens if the US strikes first and North Korea retaliates by attacking South Korea, resulting in a wider conflict that potentially pulls in China. Are we still 'all in' for that scenario?

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