Perceptions of Australia’s interests in Northeast Asia traditionally revolve around its relationships with China, Japan, and, by association, the United States. Yet a recent upsurge in Canberra’s engagement with Korean affairs is difficult to ignore.
The growing security relationship between Canberra and Seoul has been somewhat mirrored by Australia’s increased targeting by North Korean official and state media discourse, with threats of annihilation and the now infamous open letter from North Korea’s parliament to its counterparts around the world. While Canberra has always maintained an interest in North Korean affairs, recent developments have both raised the stakes and opened new windows of opportunity. Though increasingly conscious of Pyongyang’s ICBM range, Australia has also identified North Korean human rights abuses as a central focus of its two-year stint on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The absence of formal diplomatic ties between the two, however, only hurts Australia’s overall interests vis-á-vis North Korea, forfeiting its agency as a constructive middle power and potential mediator between Pyongyang and other regional stakeholders.
On paper, it would seem that Australia’s interests would be best served with a normalization of diplomatic relations. Unfortunately, on this front it has exhibited what Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has termed a lack of “strategic imagination.” After bilateral relations formally ceased in 2008, in 2013 the government resisted requests from both the United States and North Korea to restore relations based on internal advice that satisfying the request of an ally was not sufficient reason to expend intelligence resources on the surveillance of North Korean diplomats. Washington reiterated this request in 2014 to a newly elected government, which while initially supportive of the suggestion, declined after another negative cost-benefit analysis. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has recently dismissed similar suggestions, citing Washington’s success in limited dialogue with Pyongyang through backroom channels. Continuing to adhere to these rationales, however, forfeits Canberra’s agency as a potential mediator in the nuclear dispute, reinforces negative perceptions of Australia as Washington’s compliant regional deputy, and obstructs the pursuit of its UNHRC agenda.
In theory, Australia’s middle power reputation and relative lack of historical baggage in Northeast Asia place it favorably as a potential mediator in the North Korean nuclear crisis. Pyongyang’s recent letter to Canberra, while urging it to distance itself from President Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, may have also indicated that Australia retains some sort of political credibility with North Korea. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s rejection of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric earlier this year arguably exemplifies Australia’s attempt to adopt a balanced approach to the North Korea issue. For Canberra to reinstate diplomatic relations on its own initiative would further signal its willingness to play a constructive role in inter-Korean affairs, and if anything would benefit, rather than break with, regional consensus. Indeed, both Japan and South Korea have human rights interests in North Korea, while even Trump’s most recent North Korea speech placed a stronger emphasis on human rights than many previous statements. China and Russia, meanwhile, have consistently called for dialogue to resolve the nuclear crisis. Australia would thus seem well placed to simultaneously relax military tensions without altering its solidarity with regional partners, whilst increasing pressure on human rights issues.
A combination of UN sanction regimes, uncertainties over ongoing support from Beijing, and recent droughts may have opened a window of opportunity for Australia to press Pyongyang on human rights in particular. Though just as likely a political stunt, North Korea has indicated that sanctions are hurting its most vulnerable citizens, a pressure point that Canberra could attempt to leverage. There have already been positive signs of progress on human rights issues in North Korea under increased international pressure, with limited improvements in disability rights the most commonly cited example. Australia already has a strong record of engaging with North Korean human rights issues, most notably the UNHRC report chaired by Australian Chief Justice Michael Kirby in 2014, which had the unprecedented success of elevation to the UN Security Council. Clearly, the interests are there. All that is needed is action.
Admittedly, normalizing diplomatic relations is not unproblematic. British and Swedish authorities have advised Australia that their embassies face extreme difficulties accessing key political figures, and that the regime’s surveillance is pervasive. Monitoring a return North Korean embassy in Canberra would also require intense surveillance, given North Korea’s history of using embassies as fronts for illegal profiteering ventures. Getting other regional players on board may prove difficult as well, though for a variety of reasons beyond a perceptive fracturing of consensus. For example, lawmakers in Tokyo have leveraged the North Korean threat as a core rationale for prospective reforms to Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution. Furthermore, Australia’s own human rights record is currently under scrutiny, and could potentially complicate the prosecution of its agenda if Pyongyang calls out Canberra’s hypocrisy and refuses to cooperate. In fact, North Korea was among a host of countries that criticized Australia’s treatment of refugees in 2015 as part of a UNHRC review.
Even so, while some claim that pressuring Pyongyang on human rights is not constructive, average North Korean citizens do not enjoy access to the internet and lack an independent civil society that could educate them on their universal rights. It summarily appears that human rights improvements are impossible without directly engaging the government. Short of normalizing diplomacy, the suggestion that former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating and his Foreign Minister Gareth Evans could be dispatched as emissaries — similarly to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Pyongyang in the 1990s — is, while imperfect, worthy of further consideration as a step toward more regular exchanges between Pyongyang and Canberra in the interests of improving human rights and cooling military tensions.
Considering that a nuclear conflict in Northeast Asia would severely damage Australia’s various interests, and given that it considers respect for human rights as pivotal to regional economic prosperity and regional security, Canberra would appear to have a solid rationale with which to justify the normalization of diplomatic ties with North Korea, if it found the political will to do so. Investing time, financial, and political capital in diplomacy with Pyongyang could further enhance Australia’s regional credibility and middle power status. Simply deferring to the United States on North Korea no longer appears an approach conducive to Australia’s regional interests.
Tom Corben is an International Relations and Asian Studies (Hons) graduate from the University of New South Wales, Australia.