The North Korean regime has lashed out at Australia, describing its participation in current military exercises with the US and South Korea as “a suicidal act of inviting disaster”.
The North Koreans also targeted Malcolm Turnbull’s recent statements when he said that if the US came under attack from North Korea, Australia would be involved in its defence under ANZUS.
Turnbull hit back on Monday at the Pyongyang statement, saying North Korea had no regard for the welfare of its own population, the security and good relations with its neighbours, or international law.
Australia has about 25 Defence Force personnel involved in this week’s regular Ulchi-Freedom Guardian war games. The Australians have command-and-control responsibilities.
The North Korean statement from a spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs, reported by the state news agency KCNA, described Turnbull’s remarks about ANZUS as “reckless”.
Meanwhile, it said, Australia’s defence minister and “the military brass hat” had officially announced Australian troops would participate in the joint military exercises.
“Not long after the Australian prime minister had stated that they would join in the aggressive moves of the US, even referring to ANZUS which exists in name only, the Australian military announced that they would dispatch their troops to the aggressive nuclear exercises of the US.
“This is a suicidal act of inviting disaster as it is an illustration of political immaturity unaware of the seriousness of the current situation,” the statement said.
It said the “great irony is that the Australian premier, who had once condemned the military option for confrontation of Trump that it will have destructive consequences, made U turn in his stand at the admonition of the US, taking no account of Australia’s own interests”.
Australia had followed America into the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the “war on terrorism”. “But heavy loss of lives and assets were all that it got in return”, the statement said.
“The Australian government had better devote time and energy to maintaining peace of its own country, instead of forgetting the lessons learned in the past and joining the US in the moves for nuclear war.
“Countries like Australia that join the military adventure against the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], blindly following the US, will never avoid the counter-measures of justice by the DPRK,” it said.
Turnbull said Australia called on all countries “to redouble their efforts”, including through implementing Security Council resolutions, “to bring North Korea to its senses and end its reckless and dangerous threats to the peace of our region and the world”.
Australia’s defence minister, Marise Payne, last week said Australia had played a small role in the exercises since 2010 and “given their regularity and history, they should not be seen in any way as a provocative exercise”.
The exercises, which date from the 1970s, have perennially roused North Korean anger. They come this year amid the extremely high tension between the US and Pyongyang. North Korea has said that with the current drill the US is “pouring gasoline on fire”.
The drills, involving land, sea and air, run from Monday until August 31, with tens of thousands of defence personnel from the US and South Korea participating.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has said “this right now is an exercise to make certain that we’re ready to defend South Korea and our allies over there. And because of the specific circumstance, we want it to be a … heavy command post exercise.”
He said North Korea knew it was a fully defensive exercise “whatever they may say for public consumption”. “We’re very transparent in what we’re doing just to avoid miscalculation.”
Claims that North Korea could fire nuclear weapons at the continental US present a serious threat to global security. But its hostile activities don’t end there. North Korea has also become an aggressive cyber power, regularly using cyber attacks to advance its interests.
Last month, a threat intelligence firm, Recorded Future, reported that North Korea may have been using New Zealand’s internet networks as proxies to launch cyber attacks worldwide. The New Zealand government’s Communications Security Bureau is assessing the veracity of these claims.
The report suggests that North Korea may have both a physical and a virtual presence in New Zealand. It raised the possibility of a network of “patriot hackers” using New Zealand cyber networks to pursue the aims of the North Korean regime.
North Korea’s history of cyber attacks
Cyber attacks have become a wide-ranging tool in the arsenal of authoritarian governments to coerce and intimidate foreign governments, to subvert democratic processes, and to impose costs on their adversaries.
In North Korea’s case, this pattern of activity stretches back many years. North Korea is estimated to have an army of 6,000 hackers, engaging in malicious cyber activity regularly.
In March 2013, hackers linked to North Korea attacked South Korean banks and media agencies, causing widespread disruption. In November 2014, cyber attacks against Sony Pictures followed the release of the film The Interview, which caricatured and mocked the North Korean leader.
In 2016, a Bangladeshi bank became the victim of North Korean hackers. Reports said that US$81 million were lost through compromised financial transactions.
Most recently, the WannaCry ransomware attack, which affected computers in more than 150 countries, has been linked to the Lazarus group of hackers, which has links to the North Korean regime. This suggests North Korea is now using state-sponsored hackers to help raise revenue for a country starved of access to international markets and funding.
Cyber attacks further threat to nuclear security
Analysis of North Korea’s activities often misses the connections between cyber and nuclear security. North Korea’s nuclear program has itself become a victim of cyber attacks.
A report in the New York Times in March this year revealed that the Obama administration ordered a campaign of cyber subversion aimed at North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. It mirrors the now infamous Stuxnet attacks directed against Iran in 2010.
In the absence of progress on North Korean disarmament, delaying its ability to pursue nuclear weapon programs through cyber attacks has become a feature of US strategy. It’s a strategy that may yield short-term results, but presents significant escalatory dangers.
Cyber attacks pose increasingly serious risks to classified nuclear information, the security of nuclear facilities, and the integrity of the components that nuclear arms and missile technologies rely on.
Last year, the UK government was warned that its trident nuclear submarine program was vulnerable to cyber intrusions. The think-tank report Hacking UK Trident: A Growing Threat argued that a cyber attack directed against the submarines could:
… neutralise operations, lead to loss of life, defeat or perhaps even the catastrophic exchange of nuclear warheads (directly or indirectly).
Another concerning aspect of the cyber-nuclear nexus is that hacking could facilitate the proliferation of nuclear materials and technology to other aggressive states and non-state actors.
Reining in North Korea
The growing connections between nuclear and cyber security are changing the strategic balance between nuclear powers in subtle and undetermined ways. Approaches to dealing with the North Korean regime must treat these issues as related.
So what can be done about North Korea’s aggressive use of the internet? Unfortunately, just as with its nuclear program, there few good options. Sanctions imposed on the regime for its cyber activity, such as those following the Sony hack, have proved ineffective at changing the regime’s behaviour.
China and Russia may have a role to play in persuading Kim Jong-un to “play nicely” in cyberspace, but both countries also have a long history of malicious cyber operations.
There are examples where states have given up destructive weapons programs. These include Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya and the more recent Iran deal. However, the difficulty of verifying whether offensive cyber programs have been dismantled presents a major obstacle.
Cyber armies operating from a virtual realm can easily be hidden. Given that punishing the North Korean regime for its behaviour has not yielded results, it may be time to start thinking about a range of positive inducements to bring the country back into the international community, including offering diplomatic talks without precondition.
Rewarding North Korea for its errant behaviour may be unpalatable, but the combined danger of its nuclear and cyber capabilities would appear to warrant a significant shift in strategy.
A week ago, the leaked transcript of the January telephone call between Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump revealed Turnbull had told the president, “You can count on me. I will be there again and again.”
Now, as the US-North Korea verbal war intensifies, with fears it could run into a military conflict, Turnbull has made specific that general pledge.
In extended comments on Melbourne’s 3AW on Friday, Turnbull declared: “Be under no misapprehension – in terms of defence we [Australia and US] are joined at the hip”.
“Let’s be very clear … If there is an attack on the United States 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.”
Asked what would happen in the event of an attack on the US territory of Guam, Turnbull said: “We would come to the aid of the United States. Now, how that manifests itself will obviously depend on the circumstances and the consultations with our allies.”
North Korea is threatening to launch missiles not at Guam itself but in the ocean nearby.
Ahead of a Friday briefing from military chiefs and intelligence and foreign policy experts, Turnbull underlined his point: “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States”. The worsening crisis was among topics discussed in a Thursday night telephone conversation between Turnbull and US vice-president Mike Pence.
The 1951 ANZUS treaty says: “The Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific”. (Article III)
“Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.” (Article IV)
Despite the tight alliance, only once has ANZUS been invoked – by John Howard after the September 11 2001 attacks.
Mostly, when Australia has stood with the US militarily, the treaty has been not relevant or not needed.
Nor has ANZUS or the wider American alliance meant the US automatically supports Australia. Australian efforts to get America involved in regional clashes, notably Indonesia’s claims to West New Guinea, and the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation of the 1960s, were met with resistance.
Geoffrey Barker wrote in 2015, “In fact the US commitment to ANZUS has never been as strong as the Australian commitment”.
While Turnbull has trumpeted the message that Australia would support the US in a conflict with North Korea, Hugh White, professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, believes he has given a narrow, literal interpretation of the treaty and gone further than he had to.
“He’s missed the point that we have the right to judge our interests”, White says.
“Under article IV there is an obligation to act – there’s no obligation to act by contributing military forces. It’s always acknowledged that each side has the right to make a judgement about the kind of response it makes.”
The judgement, White argues, would depend on the particular circumstances. He outlines four scenarios of military conflict.
– an attack by the United States on North Korea, which some believed Trump was building up to in his words earlier this week, when he said continued threats to the US "will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen";
– an attack by North Korea on the US;
– North Korea firing its missiles to near Guam, but not on Guam;
– A pre-emptive strike by the US to prevent North Korea completing the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.
White says that Turnbull has walked past the complexities of what might happen, and asks: “Is it in Australia’s interests to encourage the US by saying we’d support it unconditionally”?
Foreign minister Julie Bishop had been more circumspect. When it was put to her this week that we would be in the fight, if it came to that, given both ANZUS and Australia’s being a party to the Korean War ceasefire, 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. As far as the ANZUS alliance is concerned, that is an obligation to consult. But of course we have been in constant discussion with our friends in the United States”.
Bishop carefully kept options open.
It is worth noting, however, that Kim Beazley, a former defence minister, has a different view of the ceasefire agreement. He wrote in The Strategist: “At the signing of the armistice in Korea in 1953 we agreed, with South Korea’s allies, that we would defend the South in the event of an attack by the North.”
If Australia became involved in a military conflict, it would be a limited contribution. It would be presence, rather than capability, that (as usual) would be important to the Americans.
As has become evident, Trump’s presidency presents Australia with serious management challenges in the alliance relationship, which is built into the foundations of Australian security policy.
This presidency is unlike any of its modern predecessors, and judging how to handle it is extremely difficult for the government. It’s interesting to note the new administration hasn’t yet even posted an ambassador to Australia.
Turnbull, with his personalised style of operating, has chosen to try to get up close and personal, talking as one businessman to another. Hence the “you can count on me” sort of line.
Turnbull may later nuance his Friday comments, but as they stand, they lock Australia into the unpredictability of unpredictable players. They also reflect, unvarnished, the reality that Australia always answers America’s call.
Debate persists over whether this is an absolute guarantee, but Turnbull left no wiggle room in his declaration that Australia would regard an attack on the US as a casus belli. He said:
America stands by its allies, including Australia, and we stand by the United States. So be very clear on that. If there’s an attack on the US, the ANZUS Treaty would be invoked and Australia would come to the aid of the United States, as America would come to our aid if we were attacked.
Turnbull’s forthright intervention might be regarded as fairly unexceptional were it not for the fact it aligns Australia with a US president untested in a crisis, and one who has shown a predisposition to shoot from the lip.
In effect, Turnbull is mortgaging Australian security policy to an unpredictable commander-in-chief whose instincts may be to take the safety catch off first and ask questions later.
Turnbull should remind himself that recent experience in which an Australian predecessor followed the US precipitately into the sands of Mesopotamia did not end well.
In his interview Turnbull might have calibrated his remarks more carefully when he said that: “In terms of defence, we are joined at the hip”.
This recalls unfortunate prime ministerial contributions such as Harold Holt’s “all the way with LBJ” at the time of Vietnam, or John Howard’s characterisation of Australia as America’s “deputy sheriff” in the Asia-Pacific. We can do without these sorts of glib statements.
Turnbull’s undertaking to apply the ANZUS Treaty should the US be attacked recalls Howard’s decision in September 2001 to invoke the treaty’s mutual defence elements after the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
This activation of Australia’s security obligations under ANZUS was largely pro forma. No follow-up ensued that could be described as action under the treaty itself. Australia’s support for the US in Afghanistan was part of a NATO deployment.
The question then becomes: how seriously should we regard an escalating war of words between a US president and North Korea in which Donald Trump has doubled down on his earlier “fire and fury” threats?
No-one should make light of the risks involved of a conflagration on the Korean Peninsula, which remains potentially the epicentre of the world’s most-destructive conflict. Nor should threats by North Korea’s idiosyncratic leader Kim Jong-un to fire a missile toward the American Pacific territory of Guam be dismissed as a stunt.
Where the real risks lie in a volatile environment is a miscalculation that could precipitate conflict that spirals out of control with unpredictable – possibly terrible – consequences.
South Korea’s vulnerability to a North Korea first – or retaliatory – strike cannot be overstated. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is within range of North Korean artillery, leaving aside a nuclear threat.
This raises the question of the extent to which North Korea has acquired the ability to arm its missile systems with a nuclear warhead, and whether intelligence reports of its development of a “miniaturised” nuclear device are correct.
It is not clear that North Korea has achieved this level of sophistication. However, no responsible leader can afford to exclude the possibility that North Korea is further advanced in its nuclear program than had been assumed.
In an analysis on the war of words that has erupted between Trump and Kim, the Council on Foreign Relations put it this way:
The war of words underscores both the American rejection of the idea of vulnerability to a nuclear-armed Kim and the increasing dangers of miscalculation that would accompany a North Korean capability to follow through on its past offensive threats to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon.
The intensity of the rhetorical escalation underscores the fact that North Korea is on a trajectory of confrontation with Washington that Defence Secretary James Mattis characterised as “catastrophic”.
Since there is no chance of Kim giving up his nuclear capability short of ironclad US guarantees of his regime’s survival, the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear pretensions will likely remain intractable. What represents the best outcome is a de-escalation of tensions, an end to the war of words, and some prospect of negotiations that would rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
If there is a model for such an arrangement it lies in the Obama administration’s agreement with Iran that led to an effective freezing of its nuclear program. Unhelpfully, the Trump administration persists in claiming Iran is breaching this agreement – without supporting evidence.
This is especially destructive at a moment when the US and its allies need to reduce tensions, not add to them.
In all of this, the best outcome is for North Korea to be drawn back into negotiations on its nuclear program under the threat of escalating sanctions to which China and Russia are party.
In the meantime, as the Council on Foreign Relations puts it:
The more the crisis escalates, the greater the dangers of miscalculation, and the harder it will be for either side to find an exit ramp from a high-stakes crisis.
Talk of the next Cuban missile crisis may be premature, but the risks of a destructive conflict in which nuclear weapons are deployed cannot be disregarded. This is shaping as the Trump administration’s first big security policy crisis.
On August 8, US President Donald Trump used his most extreme language yet in relation to North Korea. He warned the regime’s leader, Kim Jong-un, that any North Korean aggression will be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before”, if it does not stop threatening the US.
Trump said North Korea’s threats had gone “beyond a normal state” and that “North Korea best not make any more threats”. But his reaction is at odds with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent comments that the US is open to dialogue with North Korea and is not seeking regime change.
And by promising “fire and fury” Trump actually plays into Kim’s hands and replicates the aggressive and posturing rhetoric of the North Korean regime.
North Korean state media predictably responded with reports Kim is “actively considering” a pre-emptive missile attack on the US Pacific island territory of Guam, with the country’s military experts reportedly drawing up plans for this.
The role of personality
One of Trump’s clear goals from the beginning of his campaign for the presidency was his desire to be seen as a strongman on the national and international stage.
His level of ego and his obsession with appearing to be the aggressor is all very well at a town hall rally. But on the international stage it is an incredibly risky part of his personality that places the entire Asian region – if not the world – at risk.
So-called strongmen bring a distinct style and flair to international crises. Trump wants to sort things out personally. This often means he is prepared to ignore the advice of the highly trained diplomats who have been working on this issue for decades.
This kind of highly personalised, ad-hoc diplomacy may be exciting and play well for a domestic audience keen to see their leader as someone to be reckoned with. But it is inevitably destabilising and counter-productive to actually solving critical issues, such as the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Significantly, this is the first time we are dealing with unpredictable characters on both sides of the North Korean nuclear dispute.
Previously, North Korea would have been viewed as the most risky party in such a crisis. But right now its behaviour is entirely predictable, particularly in the face of confusion and a deliberate escalation of the US response – which Trump is leading.
There are more moderate forces within the US government, but their actions are being repeatedly drowned out by an unpredictable president who appears to have no appreciation of the damage and threat his statements are causing.
Strongman or madman?
The issue with Trump’s ad-hoc response and commentary on North Korea is the inconsistent messages this sends to an already paranoid and isolated regime.
North Korea is led by a power-driven despot who will not hesitate to put his own needs and political survival well above the needs of his people. Kim is already paranoid about US actions. And the increasingly disjointed nature of Trump’s dealings with North Korea serves to strengthen the regime’s claim that the US is actively seeking to destroy it.
Prior to the Trump administration the US had taken a relatively consistent approach to North Korea through the Clinton, Bush and Obama years. Essentially, the US has previously always been careful to provide an exit strategy for North Korea.
By contrast, there are several critical errors with Trump’s approach. It is imperative to allow leaders like Kim the space and flexibility to back down with some semblance of dignity. Irrespective of his character, political collapse in North Korea would be dangerous for the world – and disastrous for the region.
Trump needs to tread carefully and allow space for negotiators and diplomats to do their job. The inconsistency in message that is apparent through his tweets and off-the-cuff comments compromises the actions and statements of US diplomats working on this issue.
This undermines any progress that may be being made, and pushes North Korea further toward a critical nuclear tipping point.
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis has previously warned of an “overwhelming” response to nuclear provocation by North Korea, but said a military solution in North Korea would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale”.
As a direct result of Trump’s actions, what could have been a week of triumph as the international community came together to enact harsh sanctions on North Korea has instead perhaps drawn us one step closer to the tragedy Mattis predicted.
Over the weekend, more than 120 countries adopted a treaty at a UN conference that prohibits the production, stockpiling, use or threatened use of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Australia was a notable absentee. So were the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons.
While the UN conference was taking a major step toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, the US and its allies – notably Japan, South Korea and Australia – were hoping to use the G20 summit in Hamburg to focus attention on the danger North Korea’s nuclear ambitions pose.
However, the declaration issued at the end of the G20 does not even mention the issue. We can now expect a UN Security Council resolution that condemns North Korea’s latest missile test and applies slightly tougher sanctions.
The glaring contradiction between the boycott of the nuclear ban negotiations and the preoccupation with the North Korean nuclear threat does not seem to have dawned on the US and its allies.
Kim’s misguided provocation and Trump’s futile bluster
In North Korea’s eyes, its nuclear program is the only guarantee of regime survival.
North Korea’s apparently successful intercontinental ballistic missile test last week is widely seen, and portrayed by the regime itself, as part of a relentless drive to develop a reliable long-range nuclear weapon capable of striking the US.
The US responded to the latest test by declaring the policy of “strategic patience” is now over. In a speech delivered in Poland prior to the G20, US President Donald Trump warned he is considering “some pretty severe things” in response to North Korea’s “very, very bad behaviour”.
Yet America’s options are limited. In the first five months of his presidency, Trump’s strategy was to cajole China into taking a more confrontational stance with North Korea. But there are limits to what China is able or prepared to do.
Trump then intimated the use of tougher sanctions against North Korea, possible financial or trade sanctions against China for failing to do more, and even the direct use of military force.
However, resorting to these coercive tools is unlikely to have the desired result. History tells us harsh economic sanctions are often counter-productive. They impoverish economies, strengthen dictatorships, and drive dissent underground.
As for a military strike on North Korea, it could well lead the regime’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to launch a devastating strike against America’s allies, – notably Japan and South Korea. This might include the use of chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons. Such a turn of events may even drag China into the conflict.
More promising is the policy of strategic caution advocated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, which they reiterated in their separate meetings with Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit.
Both Russia and China argue North Korea can be persuaded to halt nuclear and missile tests if, in return, the US and South Korea suspend their joint military exercises. This would be a prelude to the resumption of talks involving the US and North Korea that could lead to undertakings for all sides to refrain from the use of force or other aggressive measures.
This more pragmatic stance is close to the position of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who argued in Hamburg that the focus should be kept on further sanctions and dialogue.
Why the treaty?
Nothing said at the G20 summit will resolve the North Korean crisis, for it is but a symptom of a deeper ailment.
The US and Russia, which between them account for 92% of the world’s nuclear weapons, are clearly intent on preserving and modernising their nuclear arsenals. They and other nuclear-armed countries have steadfastly resisted repeated calls for nuclear disarmament – even though Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty requires them to do just that.
The nuclear weapons treaty that has just emerged is a direct response to the morally and legally culpable inaction of the nuclear-armed countries – something the G20 summit did not and could not do.
Put simply, the treaty is a comprehensive effort to bring the rule of law to bear on all aspects of the nuclear assault on the planet. It designates a nuclear-weapon-free world as “a global public good of the highest order”, on which depend:
… human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations.
The treaty’s provisions are robust and thorough. In addition to prohibiting production, possession and deployment, each party to it undertakes never to test, transfer or receive from any recipient any nuclear weapons or explosive devices, and never to assist anyone or receive assistance from anyone to engage in any such activity.
Countries are further prohibited from ever allowing nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices to be stationed, installed, deployed or tested in their territory, or anywhere under their jurisdiction or control.
But there’s more to the treaty than this. It specifically acknowledges the unacceptable suffering and harm caused to the victims by nuclear weapons, as well as of those affected by the testing of nuclear weapons, in particular indigenous peoples.
The treaty also reinforces the legal obligation of relevant countries to provide appropriate remedies to the victims of nuclear testing, and effective repair of environmental damage.
Those who have been busy drafting and redrafting the treaty have taken great care to make room at a future date for those countries that have not participated in the negotiations – in particular nuclear-armed countries and their allies. A well-crafted set of procedures allows for the progressive, transparent and carefully verified dismantling of their nuclear activities.
Australia’s negative role
The dramatic events of the last week raise troubling questions for the future direction of Australian foreign policy. Why is it that Australia has been absent from the negotiations leading up to the adoption of this treaty?
The reasons are not hard to find. There is within Australia a firmly entrenched but dangerous mindset that America’s military might, including its nuclear arsenal, underwrites Australia’s national security.
The Australian government’s opposition to the nuclear ban treaty is the logical consequence of its subservience to US strategic objectives and priorities. It is the extension of longstanding policies that have led Australia to entanglement in protracted, costly and unwinnable wars – in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria.
It is the result of Australia’s psychological insecurity, and the tendency of governments to try to demonstrate at every opportunity that we remain America’s most faithful ally.
Yet there are other options. Australia has much to gain from actively supporting efforts to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, and from collaborating with like-minded countries and international organisations to develop an effective long-term nuclear disarmament agenda.
Such a process would create immense possibilities for easing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region – not just in the Korean peninsula, but in China-US and China-Japan relations, and in the South China Sea.
Public support for such a transition is greater than many would think. The nuclear ban treaty is the beginning, not the end.
North Korea’s test this week of an intercontinental ballistic missile has reignited interest and debate on the feasibility of ballistic missile defence systems, and whether countries such as Australia should seek to acquire them.
But what are these systems, and how do they work? How effective would they be in providing a defence against a potential missile attack?
How do they work?
All ballistic missile defence systems consist of a network of tracking and guidance radars, and the interceptor launchers.
On detecting a ballistic missile launch, the radars track the missile’s trajectory, fire an interceptor to shoot it down, and prepare further interceptors to be launched if the first one misses.
This is referred to as a “shoot-look-shoot” strategy, as opposed to a strategy of saturation – where the defender simply shoots as many interceptors as possible in the hope of achieving a kill.
Modern defence systems use interceptor missiles carrying kinetic kill vehicles. These are warheads that are non-explosive and designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles by simply crashing into them.
All of the systems mentioned below are intended to work in conjunction with one another. They are integrated to provide the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles throughout their flight path. However, they are also capable of operating independently, although with less effectiveness than if operated in conjunction with other systems.
Missile defence systems in the region
The US and its allies in the Asia-Pacific currently deploy several ballistic missile defence systems. These would be used in the unlikely event that North Korea decided to actually launch a ballistic missile attack.
The first and most prominent is Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, which the US has deployed in South Korea. THAAD is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in the terminal phase of flight – that is, as the ballistic missile is re-entering the atmosphere to strike its target.
The second relevant system is Patriot PAC-3, which is designed to provide late terminal phase interception – that is, after the missile has re-entered the atmosphere. It is deployed by US forces operating in the region, as well as Japan.
Perhaps the most capable system currently in operation in the region is the Aegis naval system, which is deployed on US and Japanese destroyers. It is designed to intercept ballistic missiles in the mid-course phase of flight – that is, when the missile is outside of earth’s atmosphere and transiting to its target.
What all of these systems have in common is they are theatre ballistic missile defence systems, designed to provide protection against short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as the one tested by North Korea this week, fly too high and fast for these systems to engage with.
Aegis has demonstrated some limited capability to engage targets similar to intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was used to shoot down a malfunctioning spy satellite in 2008, but has never been tested against an actual intercontinental ballistic missile target.
The only system expressly designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles is the US Ground-based Midcourse Defence. However, this has a very patchy record in testing. By the end of 2017 it will only have 44 interceptors deployed.
How effective are they?
None of these systems is 100% effective, and most have an iffy record in testing. Aegis has succeeded in 35 out of 42 tests, while Ground-based Midcourse Defence has had only ten successes in 18 tests. However, THAAD has been successful in 18 out of 18 tests.
Tests are conducted in favourable conditions – and it is reasonable to expect the success rates to be lower in actual combat use.
The true difficulty lies with intercontinental ballistic missiles. An intercontinental ballistic missile can attain altitudes well in excess of low earth orbit. Those fired on a typical long-range trajectory can exceed 1,200km in altitude. The high-trajectory, short-range test shot North Korea conducted this week attained an altitude of 2,700km.
However, the altitude intercontinental ballistic missiles attain is only part of the problem. The other major challenge facing ballistic missile defence is the truly enormous speeds that missiles attain during the terminal phase. They often hit or exceed 20 times the speed of sound.
A common comparison used is that ballistic missile defence is akin to shooting a bullet in flight with another bullet. The reality is even more extreme.
For example, a .300 Winchester Magnum (a high-velocity hunting and sniper round) can achieve a velocity of 2,950 feet per second as it leaves the barrel. This equates to 3,237km/h, or 2.62 times the speed of sound. An intercontinental ballistic missile can achieve speeds almost eight times faster than this. As a result, it is almost impossible to reliably defend against such missiles.
This is not necessarily a problem for countries such as Japan and South Korea. Any ballistic missile used by North Korea against them would be a shorter-range ballistic missile that these systems could engage.
However, countries should be mindful that these systems provide limited-to-no capability to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles. In Australia’s case, the only missiles capable of reaching this far from North Korea are intercontinental ballistic missiles. Thus, even if Australia decided to invest in ballistic missile defence, it would provide little-to-no protection from a potential North Korean nuclear attack.
On paper, North Korea represents a sizeable threat to the international community. It is a totalitarian state; it has nuclear weapons; and it is ruled by a megalomaniac leader. Even to the most self-assured deterrence theorist, North Korea must elicit some dark fears.
Fuelling North Korea’s propaganda
The potential destruction of a nuclear attack and the likely repercussions is so grave that it is understandable that most are prepared to take Kim’s rhetoric and actions at face value. This is smart, in one sense, because it is arguably not worth poking a deranged animal about what he should rationally do by using international relations theory.
However, in another sense, it is giving Kim exactly what he wants: fuel for propaganda.
Kim’s rhetoric and actions are a carefully crafted strategy of brinkmanship, designed mostly for maintaining his domestic grip on power. The biggest challenge in his position as supreme leader – one all autocrats face – is how to maintain his authoritarian rule.
Unlike leaders in democracies – where elections give a clear popular mandate to rule, and institutions have legitimacy in the eyes of the people – autocrats face an ongoing domestic conundrum of how best to cultivate legitimacy. Two strategies are commonly used: repression and propaganda.
Repression (often involving terror) is an obvious tactic that leaders and elites in authoritarian countries utilise to solidify their grip on power. Weakening people’s belief that collective action can bring about positive change is an important prerequisite for authoritarian rule.
Ironically, it is often when authoritarian states undertake some form of liberalisation that people are able to rise up and topple the incumbent regime. Two such examples are the French Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Propaganda is a similarly noticeable tactic that leaders and elites in authoritarian countries use to justify and explain their harsh rule. Such propaganda usually has two aims: discrediting dissidents, and blaming external actors.
Under this propaganda, which becomes more potent when a state has a monopoly on the dissemination of information, domestic dissidents and opposition movements become wreckers or terrorists. Overseas adversaries become meddlers or imperialists.
Can China contain the threat?
Of importance to the international community right now is that, in a similar fashion to Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Kim has consciously used an external adversary for domestic propaganda purposes. In this case, it is the US and its proxies – especially South Korea.
To this end, Kim’s rhetoric and action against the US and others is framed domestically as the heroic defiance of an evil enemy. As the Putin example shows, standing up to a perceived evil enemy – especially a more powerful one – garners a lot of domestic support.
Kim Jong-un, like his father Kim Jong-il, has been able to pursue this strategy of brinkmanship with great success, at least for domestic purposes. This is mainly because despite all the international repercussions to date – ostracism, sanctions, and threats of intervention – China has been willing to prop up North Korea.
China’s interest is simple. It sees a potentially unified Korea that would place US military bases on its border as untenable. So, propping up North Korea is of clear strategic value.
China probably sees Kim’s toppling as something that cannot be allowed to happen. However, it still has the best chance of managing the North Korean conundrum with the least amount of fallout. Given its own authoritarian – and previously totalitarian – structure, China probably understands Kim’s strategy of brinkmanship better than the West does.
Also, China has the leverage to assuage Kim, and ensure his rhetoric and actions remain mere brinkmanship and not active policy.
These facts, and the probability that China would not want any conflict between North Korea and the West, should provide confidence that – if US President Donald Trump can get out of the way – the North Korean threat is largely under control. But we definitely have not heard the last of Kim, or North Korea’s weapons program.
Pundits often cite the North Korean regime’s crimes against its citizens as proof of Kim Jong-un’s irrationality as a leader. These crimes, as exhaustively documented by former High Court justice Michael Kirby for the UN Human Rights Council, are monstrous and inexcusable.
Grave as they are, they do follow a discernible logic from the perspective of Kim’s efforts to consolidate his regime’s hold on power. Perversely, US President Donald Trump’s sabre-rattling plays into Kim’s logic of domestic power that positions the US as a dire threat, justifying the regime’s political repression.
William Perry, US under secretary of state during the Clinton administration, has contended that Trump’s military brinkmanship increases the likelihood of coercing North Korea back to denuclearisation negotiations. This is the ground that a heightened threat of American attack will prompt Kim to recalculate the benefits of continued nuclear proliferation.
But this scenario is only credible if Trump intends following through on the threat. This now appears more questionable given the controversy over the exact location of the USS Carl Vinson.
Having established the foolishness of attacking North Korea in my previous article, I’d now like to prompt discussion on a couple of points.
The first is how the “irrational Kim” rhetoric limits our ability to understand the complexity of the crisis in North Korea. This creates risks that perversely would compromise human rights and humanitarian goals.
The second is to explore other options for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for North Koreans beyond the threat and application of military force.
There is much emotion in debates over North Korea, and rightly so. Many North Korenas have experienced much suffering and trauma, as well as the lingering anguish of the Korean War and the separation of families by the partition of Korea.
This is precisely why analysts need to carefully weigh up the risks and rewards of policy choices: to do justice to that suffering, and to ensure we do not recommend misadventures that could add further misery to the North Korean people.
First, don’t make things worse
Considering the risks to civilians posed by a war of regime change, it is difficult to mount a case for war as a vehicle for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for the North Korean people.
The discourse on human rights in North Korea has long been framed through the lens of national security. Policy issues become “securitised” when proponents of an issue area frame it as an existential security threat, of high priority, that requires extraordinary measures and rapid action to tackle.
Because such issues become framed in the language of security, military-based solutions often come to dominate policy prescriptions. The “crazy Kim” argument has been central to the security rhetoric around human rights in North Korea. This locks possible solutions into a narrow spectrum focused on military force and coercion.
Just as doctors undertake to “first do no harm”, so too should foreign-policy-makers be wary of strategic choices that carry a high risk of making things worse.
Many Korea analysts have pointed to Seoul’s vulnerability, and the risk to millions of South Koreans, posed by a cascading escalation of US military action into full-scale war. That risk also applies to people living in population centres north of the demilitarised zone.
As the Iraq example again illustrates, removing a dictator in a war of regime change is not a guarantee that human rights and humanitarian outcomes will improve.
Either way, this death toll and suffering escalated well beyond the scale of human rights abuses and deaths that occurred under Saddam Hussein’s regime. This is not to downplay the suffering of those persecuted under Hussein, but to recognise that the invasion of Iraq made a bad situation worse.
Could we see similar casualty numbers in a war in North Korea?
North Korea is an urbanised country. Approximately 60% of people are concentrated in larger urban centres. In the event of full-scale escalation, air strikes are likely to target critical infrastructure in an effort to weaken the fighting and logistical capacity of the Kim regime. Many of these targets will be in urban centres, exposing civilians to attack.
We should be mindful of the humanitarian cost of the damage of war to the North Korean economy, industry, agriculture and key infrastructure. Targeting of critical energy, transportation and sanitation infrastructure will no doubt weaken North Korea’s fighting capacity, but also eliminate those critical services for civilians. Food production and distribution networks are likely to be disrupted.
For a country that is already chronically food insecure, any damage to food production and distribution systems will have immediate impacts on increasing malnutrition and starvation. Consider that estimates of deaths from North Korea’s “Arduous March” famine in the mid-1990s sit at approximately 600,000 after the collapse of the country’s food production and distribution system.
The elimination of services for civilians is likely to increase the risk of non-combat casualties from malnutrition, disease, and the elements – particularly during North Korea’s harsh winter.
If such a war ends quickly and an occupation force arrives in North Korea to restore security, casualty figures will be still be high. However, some of the longer-term impacts of human insecurity might be avoided.
However, in the event the post-regime environment is unstable, then casualty figures for North Koreans on a scale similar to Iraq become more likely.
Creating an environment for positive human rights outcomes
Removing Kim Jong-un as the head of the regime does not automatically translate into a win for human rights. A lot of post-conflict nation-building has to take place if a war scenario is to transcend the immediate humanitarian disaster and create an environment in which human rights for the North Korean people can be improved.
Human rights are best guaranteed by stable governance, strong political institutions, legal protections, active civil society, and broad material wellbeing. A post-conflict North Korea in which the Kim regime has been removed would effectively be a failed state. None of these facilitating conditions for human rights guarantees would yet exist.
It takes time and resources to cultivate the institutions of a stable state. It requires many years of patient networking, conversation and compromise to develop a social movement that could evolve into an active civil society. It takes even longer to cultivate a political culture in which the citizenry respects the integrity of the political system even when their faction is not in power.
Without this social infrastructure, Kim Jong-un’s removal is likely to lead to the disintegration of North Korea into a failed state, paving the way for the emergence of another authoritarian strongman.
In South Korea, it took more than 40 years after the conclusion of the Korean War, an ongoing American military occupation, and the development of a broad-based pro-democracy movement, for an imperfect democratic political system to evolve.
To suggest this process could be circumvented in North Korea does not accord with the findings of research into democratisation and social movements. These norms, rules and institutions should ideally be developed by the North Korean people over time, not impatiently imposed from outside by other powers.
It is doubtful that Trump – and, more importantly, his core political support base – has the stomach for the massive long-term, high-cost commitment that nation-building in a post-Kim North Korea would entail.
Where to from here?
One could be forgiven for observing the current US-North Korea standoff as a game played by privileged men in suits on either side, gambling with the lives of ordinary citizens. Millions of lives on both sides of the demilitarised zone and beyond are placed at unnecessary risk through such high-stakes brinkmanship.
It is easy for leaders to talk tough on non-proliferation and human rights enforcement. But it is quite another to bring about international norms in these fields in such a tricky strategic context as the Korean Peninsula.
Unfortunately, Trump’s penchant for military posturing does little to increase the likelihood of denuclearising North Korea, or improving human rights outcomes for its citizens.
Instead, the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric inadvertently legitimises North Korea’s justifications for its nuclear weapons program, along with the domestic coercive apparatus that persecutes North Korean citizens.
Guaranteeing human rights in North Korea will ultimately require new institutions, new laws, a domestic civil society, cultural change, and a process of justice for past abuses.
This is a project far beyond the scope of military action, requiring patience, innovative thinking and disciplined strategic restraint on the part of policymakers. And they must recognise the unique strategic circumstances of the Korean Peninsula.