In recent months, and with the possible exception of South Korea, it has been nuclear powers — China, North Korea, the United States, even Russia — that have dominated headlines and shaped much of the public discourse regarding the flurry of diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula. One could certainly be forgiven for overlooking the fact that several other regional actors retain a deep interest in the processes and outcomes of ongoing negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington. While Japan is an obvious example, as an aspiring middle power Australia also has ample motivation to intensify its engagement with the Korean Peninsula.
However, events over the last six months have only underscored the inadequacy of Australia’s current Korea policy. In order to capitalize upon emerging opportunities on the peninsula, Australia’s hereto nearsighted and reactive Korea policy will require a major overhaul.
Many commentators within Australia have already come to such a conclusion. Last November I argued that Australia was well-placed to act as a potential intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington, in turn complementing its relations with South Korea and enhancing its middle power profile — yet this opportunity was subsequently squandered. In December, the Australian Financial Review argued that fast-moving developments on the Korean Peninsula had exposed the “undervalued and underdone” relationship between Canberra and Seoul, and that Australia’s passive fixation with the nuclear issue was antithetical to its broader regional interests. Former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans noted in an address to an Australia-Korea Relations Symposium in April that the potential of the Australia-South Korea relationship remained vastly untapped, and an authoritative report from scholars at the Australia National University recommended that the Australian government prepare to “initiate and pursue a distinctly national approach” to engagement with both Koreas. In May, Dr. Jay Song from the University of Melbourne criticized a lack of long-term policy vision or independence as a constraining factor on Australia’s pursuit of its interests on the peninsula.
In brief, the consensus is that Australia’s existing Korea policy suffers from “nuclear tunnel vision.” Remarks from Australian leaders certainly support this argument, having rarely articulated anything resembling independent foreign policy, and instead parroting U.S. demands for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” or crediting U.S President Donald Trump for diplomatic breakthroughs. North Korea’s human rights record, supposedly one of Canberra’s priorities on the United Nations Human Rights Council, has also largely disappeared from Australia’s Korea discourse.
Perhaps most concerning is Canberra’s apparent ignorance of the role and effectiveness of Seoul’s own engagement strategy with Pyongyang. Aside from a joint statement with the other members of MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey) praising the Panmunjom Declaration and progress in inter-Korean relations, Australia has otherwise seemed aloof to the Moon administration’s diplomatic leadership — Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s comments on the Moon-Kim meeting credited every stakeholder but South Korea. Following the Trump-Kim summit, Turnbull at least acknowledged Seoul’s “solidarity” in maintaining sanctions pressure, but again betrayed an ignorance of South Korean agency. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stated that Australia was exploring ways to contribute to verifying North Korea’s possible denuclearization, but again, Canberra’s interests in Korea are not confined to nuclear security alone.
Thus, although a statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) pledged Australia’s commitment to coordinate with its partners “in support of peace and stability” after Singapore, the “nuclear tunnel vision” and neglect of South Korea hereto demonstrated means it is difficult to see exactly how Australia could effectively do so without first refreshing its Korea policy. Fortunately, there are already several established avenues through which Australia may do just that.
Though it is true that there is significant room for improvement in the Australia-South Korea economic partnership, frameworks for cooperation on security and human rights issues already exist and provide relatively easy options for Canberra to kickstart engagement with Seoul, pending a more comprehensive review of trade relations. For example, the Australia-South Korea security partnership already benefits from annual “2+2” ministerial dialogues, a common security patron in the United States, and a recent history of joint military exercises. A subtle uptick in bilateral security cooperation could be the order of the day, building upon existing progress and partially offsetting strategic setbacks that each country has recently experienced elsewhere without unduly ruffling Pyongyang’s feathers. Washington and Seoul may have jointly announced that day-to-day military training and coordination would continue despite the suspension of the Freedom Guardian exercises in August, yet this is nevertheless a setback for South Korea’s military readiness. While by no means offsetting those suspended exercises, inviting South Korean ground troops to participate in exercises held between U.S. and Australian military forces in the Northern Territory, as I suggested last October, is a relatively easy and timely way for Canberra to signal that it has not forgotten Seoul. From an Australian perspective, its ongoing exclusion from the MALABAR naval exercises with the United States, Japan, and India only confirms the benefits of developing strategic partnerships elsewhere. In essence, a material gesture of support from Canberra for an embattled fellow U.S. ally could prove beneficial for both parties.
Coordinating with South Korea on North Korean human rights issues is another way for Australia to reinvigorate its engagement with the peninsula, given that Canberra and Seoul both currently sit on the United Nations Human Rights Council and have both flagged the subject as a priority. While rights issues were admittedly absent from the Panmunjom and Singapore Declarations, North Korea’s renewed focus on economic development and Kim Jong Un’s supposed intent to, according to Trump, “do the right thing” by his people could be an encouraging sign — though such statements, from both Kim and Trump, are worth taking with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, history shows that North Korea is capable of working with the international community to advance domestic human rights issues, including on disability, reproductive, and children’s rights. Scrutiny of other abuses should by no means disappear, but collaborating with North Korea on economic and social rights has a far higher chance of success than simply condemning its political and civil failures. Engagement also has the added utility of educating North Korean officials and their subordinates in certain rights concepts they do not necessarily completely understand. Under present circumstances, for Canberra the benefits of engaging Pyongyang in constructive dialogue far outweigh the costs.
To conclude, recent developments have presented Australia with the chance to reassert itself as a constructive player across multiple fronts on the Korean Peninsula. It is in Australia’s interests to (re)discover the sort of proactivity, independence, and creativity required of middle powers in the formulation and prosecution of effective foreign policy. A prompt recalibration of Australia’s Korea policy will be essential if it is to safeguard its long-term interests on the Korean Peninsula, and in Northeast Asia more broadly.
Tom Corben is a research intern with the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the aforementioned institutions.