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War & Peace on the Korean Peninsula

This undated picture, released from Korean Central News Agency on June 11, 2008, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (L) inspecting Korean People's Army unit 958 at an undisclosed location. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

This undated picture, released from Korean Central News Agency on June 11, 2008, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (L) inspecting Korean People's Army unit 958 at an undisclosed location. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The perennial problem of China and Taiwan is once again generating more heat than light - compounded both by the unpredictability of Taiwan's domestic democratic processes as well as the quantum deterioration in US-China relations over the last six months. I hope to be speaking on this topic in Melbourne later next week.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea also remain although regional processes have assited in ameliorating some of the more acute tensions of the past.

However, the fifth and arguably most volatile of our unresolved regional disputes is the Korean Peninsular.

Like the China-Taiwan dispute, that on the Korean Peninsular is now nearly half a century old.

As in China-Taiwan, the unresolved conflict between the two Koreas also had its origins in ideology, containment, and the Cold War.

In both cases, bloody civil wars were fought - in China's case in the absence of the direct participation of the super powers. In the case of the Koreas, the reverse.

However, that is probably where the broad similarities stop - if only because the maturity of the dialogue and the depth of the engagement between Beijing and Taipei is now literally light years ahead of that which exists between Pyongyang and Seoul.

That does not mean that the China-Taiwan relationship is stable. It is not. It exhibits every capacity for rapid deterioration - as demonstrated by Beijing's reaction to President Lee Teng-Hui's pronouncement that relations across the Taiwan Straits are now best characterised as "state to state" relations.

However, Pyongyang is a different phenomenon altogether. The absence of a mature relationship with the South, the regularity and intensity of its military provocations as well as the uniformly Stalinist nature of the regime itself, arguably places the Korean Peninsular much closer to the precipice than any other conflict within the region.

The Peninsular, therefore, must logically command the attention of Australian policy makers as well as our political leadership.

This can sometimes be difficult because when put to the test of Australian public opinion, the perception of the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsular and of any future Australian involvement in such a war would be very remote indeed.

In fact, the crude summary of Australian perceptions probably goes something like this: the conflict in East Timor is seen as "real" and one which involves important Australian interests - in part because of our historical engagement, in part because of geographical proximity.

China and Taiwan by contrast, are often seen as being on the medium to outer edge of Australia's strategic interests - at least, that is, in our national imagination, buffered as we are by continental and archipelagic South East Asia.

But when we speak of Kashmir and Korea, it is as if we are speaking of the outer edge of our strategic interests.

For different reasons, such perceptions are substantially flawed.

When we, for example, consider objectively the core strategic and economic interests we have at stake on the Korean Peninsular, we see that they are very large interests indeed.

Any strategic implosion on the Korean Peninsular would inevitably impact on Japan, China, and the United States.

South Korea itself continues as Australia's third largest export market.

When Japan and China are added, we are talking about more than half of Australia's total exports or approximately 10% of Australian GDP.

Then, of course, there are our defence obligations under the ANZUS Treaty and the possibility that the United States would require consultations with Australia (under the provisions of the Treaty) in the event of what Washington would probably perceive as a threat to common security within the broader region.

Future developments on the Korean Pensinsular, therefore, are at the centre, not the margins, of Australia's national interest.

And the simple proposition that I wish to advance today is that the energies of Australian foreign policy need increasingly to be directed towards the development of a stable peace on the Korean Peninsular.

And at the same time, Australian security policy needs increasingly to be mindful of the possibility that this stable peace may not necessarily ensue.

Nature of the DPRK Regime

Any rational analysis of how best to secure a sustainable and stable peace on the Korean Peninsular must begin with an analysis of the DPRK regime itself.

It is a curious and quixotic regime indeed that has as its President in 1999 a gentleman who departed this life in 1994 - namely Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader and now "eternal president" of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The Great Leader has, of course, been replaced in a substantial sense by his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il - although the only formal position which Kim the younger now occupies is that of Chairman of the National Defence Commission.

The cult of personality is the DPRK today is an extraordinary phenomenon to behold - even more dramatic to observe first hand as I did when I visited Pyongyang in May of this year.

This is a city which has a statue and a billboard on almost every corner extolling the personal virtues and revolutionary achievements of the Kim family dynasty.

As The Economist recently reported, Kim Jong Il's biographers reveal that in his youth he wrote six operas, each of them better than any in the history of music. And when Kim first turned his hand to golf, he scored five holes in one and beat the world record for a single round by 25 strokes.

A further insight into the genuinely bizarre nature of the regime is that at the Tenth Supreme People's Assembly held in Pyongyang in October last year the central leadership speech was not delivered by Kim Jong Il (who in fact made no speech at all) but by Kim Il Sung - or at least a tape recording of his address to the Ninth Supreme People's Assembly held back in 1991.

In the midst of all this strange behaviour, is it possible to discern some of the attitudes and policy predispositions of Kim Jong Il and his key advisers to such critical questions as domestic economic reform (particularly in the midst of an ongoing famine) as well as normalisation of relations with both the South and the United States?

There seems to be general consensus among analysts that between Kim Il Sung's death in 1994 and the convening of the Tenth Supreme People's Assembly last year, Kim Jong Il was principally preoccupied with the consolidation of his leadership. It also appears that the price for this consolidation has been an excessive reliance on the military - the Korean People's Army or KPA. The military historically represent the most conservative, non-reformist and least predisposed to peaceful unification of the various elements that collectively make up the political apparatus of the DPRK.

Kim Jong Il's reliance upon the military is underlined by his Chairmanship of the National Defence Commission and the absence of any formal positions either within the Korean Workers' Party or the formal apparatus of the state. The dominance of the KPA in the power equation is also reinforced by the fact that in the formal leadership rankings issued at the end of last year, all ten members of the National Defence Commission are listed within the top 20 of the DPRK hierarchy.

Moreover, within these leadership rankings, members of the National Defence Commission who are not members of the Party Politburo now outrank a number of full Politburo members. Furthermore, there was also a virtual doubling in the number of military officials elected to the Supreme People's Assembly as delegates from the 9th SPA to the 10th SPA.