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North Korea: is Australia at risk of nuclear war?

As tension between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un grows, there is a great deal of speculation about whether North Korea has the power and the weapons to launch a nuclear war. Here, we’ll explore the potential for conflict and the impact this would have on Australia.

North Korea in brief

North Korea is a communist country under dictatorship that lies between China and South Korea. Its capital city is Pyongyang. The current leader is Kim Jong-Un, also known to his people as ‘The Supreme Leader’. The Kim family has been in power since 1948, following the division of the country after World War 2. Prior to the war, the whole of Korea was occupied by Japan.

Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather, Kim II Sung (‘The Great General’), led the country until 1994. He was responsible for starting the Korean War in 1950, in which the North Korean People’s Army attempted to invade its southern neighbour, the Republic of Korea. His son (and Kim Jong-Un’s father), Kim Jong-Il (‘The Dear Leader’), led the country from 1994 to 2011, during which time he developed a nuclear weapons program.

North Korean people have been bombarded with propaganda during the Kim family’s dictatorship. There is a strict regime and residents, who are mostly living in poor conditions, are extremely closed off from the rest of the world. For example, they only have access to approximately 30 carefully curated websites that enable Kim Jong-Un to control the messages the population receives.

Battle of the bold

During the Korean War, the US backed South Korea, so there’s been tension ever since. Today, America’s biggest concern is North Korea’s development of nuclear and ballistic missiles. The country has fired 18 missiles in tests this year. In July, it tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, which has a range of 5500 kilometres. This means it could reach northern and central Australia.

Despite the potential for disaster, some experts believe that war-focused statements made by Kim Jong-Un are mostly a strategic attempt to perpetuate regime messages. But Dr Danielle Chubb, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University, says this is no reason to be complacent.

‘North Korea has a nuclear arsenal that threatens not just the region, but poses a threat to the continental United States (and the territories of its allies, such as Australia). In that sense, it is just as capable of starting a deadly and devastating nuclear war as any other nuclear capable state,’ she says.

According to Dr Chubb, North Korea is not a country that diplomats want to take seriously, or sit down and talk to, which has created an even bigger problem. . In 2002, President George W. Bush labelled Iraq, Iran and North Korea the ‘axis of evil’ and vowed to fight against their ‘weapons of mass destruction’. But the threat of war only strengthened the resolve to develop nuclear and ballistic missile programs. ‘When President Bush grouped North Korea into his ‘axis of evil’, the rogue status that has been applied to North Korea has taken on a life of its own and has prevented any real effort to deal with the reality of the situation,’ Dr Chubb says.

'North Korea has a nuclear arsenal that threatens not just the region, but poses a threat to the continental United States (and the territories of its allies, such as Australia). In that sense, it is just as capable of starting a deadly and devastating nuclear war as any other nuclear capable state.'

Dr Danielle Chubb,
Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Deakin University

Poised to strike

There is plenty of speculation about what will happen next. Dr Chubb suggests that there are best and worst case scenarios to consider. ‘The worst case scenario is that the US decides to launch a strike against North Korea in some sort of effort to disable the regime,’ she explains. She says such an event would almost certainly result in a devastating conflict on the Korean peninsula.

On the other hand, ‘The best case scenario is a de-escalation of tensions and an end to the rhetoric posturing on both sides, with the US and North Korea working to put aside moral and political posturing and talk to each other about ways forward,’ Dr Chubb suggests.

But she cautions even if the best possible outcome were to occur, ‘it doesn’t immediately solve the problem that North Korea has nuclear weapons’. Dr Chubb points out that in the best case example we would see an effort to repair the damage that has been done. President Donald Trump has floated the idea of penalising countries that trade with North Korea through diplomatic exclusion. But in reality, Dr Chubb argues: ‘Seeking to isolate North Korea, through sanctions and diplomatic exclusion, has brought us to where we are now, with no “good” options, only a series of “less bad” ones.’

Australian allies

‘Our Prime Minister has made it clear that Australia will unambiguously “come to the aid of the United States” in the case of a confrontation between our ally and North Korea,’ Dr Chubb explains. She says this statement was surprising because it was unnecessary at this point in the process.

In particular, the automatic alliance with the US has raised questions about how this might impact Australia’s relationship with China. Greens leader Richard Di Natale argued: ‘If there was ever a clearer example of why Australia needs to ditch the US alliance and develop an independent, non-aligned foreign policy, this is it.’

Dr Chubb agrees. ‘It constricts Australia’s strategic options in the case of such a conflict, and represents a very narrow definition of the ‘national interest.’

What the future holds is still unclear, but as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said, Australia has ‘a deep interest in seeing this resolved’.

Want to learn more about conflict and international politics? Consider studying international relations at Deakin University.


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Dr Danielle Chubb
Dr Danielle Chubb

Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University
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