Politics

Fear, loathing, and North Korean nukes: should Kiwis care?

The spectre of war with Kim Jong-un is back in headlines after a rhetorical exchange that has included Donald Trump threatening “fire and fury”. How serious are the threats from Pyongyang, and what does it mean for New Zealand, asks Asia-Pacific expert Van Jackson

This is how they say people fall asleep, or fall in love, or go bankrupt: gradually at first, and then all at once. For decades the world watched as North Korea moved incrementally but inexorably toward becoming a nuclear weapons state. Its nuclear transformation was generations – not just decades – in the making. And yet the recent revelation that North Korea is now able to mount nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles came suddenly, surprising and dismaying even many devoted Korea watchers.

It shouldn’t have. North Korea’s goals were always clear: regime survival, and if possible reunification of the divided Korean Peninsula under the communist-led North. Nuclear weapons were originally the best means, and eventually the only means, of getting what it wanted. Whereas nuclear weapons have never made much sense to New Zealand, they’ve always made eminent sense to North Korea.

Northeast Asia is a tough geopolitical neighborhood. Its dynastic leadership is deeply paranoid. And it sees the United States as an almost permanent enemy. But more than that, nuclear weapons were a source of national pride for North Korea, as they were in Pakistan and India; the ultimate weapon was a great equalizer in an unending competition with the freer, better educated, and more prosperous South Korea over who had the more legitimate claim to being the “real Korea”.

So for any number of reasons, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are here to stay. And if we believe the leaked intelligence report judging that North Korea now has nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) – and we should believe it – then North Korea can directly threaten US territory with that capability.

A South Korean soldier walks past a television screen showing a graphic illustrating North Korea’s threat of a strike on the island of Guam. Photo: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

Should any of this matter to New Zealand?

Yes. Hell, yes.

New Zealand may sit just outside the estimated range of North Korea’s ballistic missiles, but what if the estimate is wrong? And if it’s right, all of Australia falls within North Korea’s missile range. At present, the likelihood of North Korea targeting Australia or New Zealand with a missile attack is rather low, but it’s important to be aware of what’s possible, especially because New Zealand lacks immediate defences in such an event.

But I wouldn’t lose sleep over the missile threat to New Zealand just yet. The bigger issue might actually be that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a slap in the face to New Zealand’s famously anti-nuclear foreign policy stance. New Zealand has been an important voice in the global disarmament movement, but the ultimate success of that movement could depend on how the world responds to a nuclear North Korea.

Already we know that North Korea’s existence as a new nuclear state creates pressures for other non-nuclear powers to consider going nuclear. In the Second Nuclear Age, the incentives for small or autocratic states to go nuclear increases, not decreases, and the barriers to acquisition are lower, not higher, than during the Cold War. For years North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons stimulated conversations in South Korea and Japan about whether they should pursue an independent nuclear capability in response. Those conversations haven’t gotten far, thankfully, but the primary reason has been US commitments to extend its own nuclear capabilities to protect South Korea and Japan from nuclear attack. So, at best, a nuclear North Korea creates an unending justification for US nuclear promises, paradoxically, as a way to prevent its allies from going nuclear.

Most importantly, New Zealand is a troop-contributing nation to the United Nations Command-led mission in South Korea that oversees the always precarious Armistice Agreement signed by the United States, China, and North Korea in 1953. The New Zealand Defence Force is part of the “tripwire” that aims to warn North Korea off of any overly aggressive designs on the South, and if wars breaks out anew, New Zealand is a default member of the multilateral coalition response.

What can New Zealand do?

Just stay alert, for now. It’s a volatile situation.

Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump are trading threats like they’re in a rap battle. Kim said, if provoked, he would turn America into a “sea of fire” (a common threat once reserved only for Seoul, South Korea’s capital). Trump clapped back with the warning that if Kim continued to threaten the U.S., he would be met with “fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which the world has never seen.” Kim, not to be outdone, called Trump’s bluff within hours, threatening Guam (a US territory) with its nuclear ICBMs. Where does this end? If my past predictions are correct, nowhere good.

New Zealand can’t stop this train, but it can serve as a reminder to the world that sober leadership exists. New Zealand’s role as a “sending state” to the United Nations Command has enduring symbolic importance. New Zealand has taken a principled stand against North Korea’s violations of international law, and has taken the implementation of economic sanctions seriously. And it’s a major player in the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is important for helping build global capacity against the proliferation of nuclear weapons generally. New Zealand makes other international contributions too.

The point of these varied contributions isn’t the narrow purpose each serves, but rather the statement they collectively make: that there is an international community, that New Zealand’s contributions are proof of that, and that the world doesn’t have to devolve into anarchy. North Korea’s existence as a nuclear state is, so far, anathema to the notion of an international community, and that’s a problem.

Van Jackson is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies, also at Victoria. He hosts the podcast series Pacific Pundit.


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