We don’t have a lot to go on to evaluate New Zealand’s response so far to the heightened state of tension between North Korea and the United States. Pretty much the only direct evidence comes from the first two minutes of a radio interview given by Bill English earlier this week.
But the Prime Minister said enough for us to detect an approach that seems consistent with New Zealand’s existing line on North Korea’s troubling nuclear program. Perhaps the most obvious and important of these is that New Zealand would like to see this problem dealt with peacefully through diplomatic channels and in accordance with United Nations resolutions. A second is that North Korea is violating its international legal obligations, a point that echoes Foreign Minister McCully’s condemnation last month of North Korean missile testing. A third is that New Zealand welcomes signs of US-China collaboration, including indications that China is willing to increase economic pressure on North Korea.
When Mr English was being asked about America’s approach we were being led to believe by the Trump Administration that a US aircraft carrier battle group was heading directly towards North Asian waters. That mistaken view – which was subsequently corrected - helped generate concern that US military action was increasingly likely. Asked if he agreed with the North Korean depiction of the United States as a thug, Mr English said that he did not. But it was not altogether clear how strongly he supported the military dimension of America’s current approach. His caution seemed reminiscent of the view that New Zealand could understand why the United States had conducted missile strikes against the Syrian airbase. And when asked whether New Zealand would get advanced notice from the United States that it was about to launch an attack on North Korean targets, Mr English brushed off the question as a hypothetical. He then said that such an extreme situation was quite a way down the road and that there would be clear warning signs before things got to that point.
A useful contrast is offered when we consider Australia’s treatment of this pressing regional security issue. In the first instance, the Turnbull government has evinced a much more graphic sense of concern about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The Australian Prime Minister has indicated that Australia could be within Pyongyang’s range before too long. Of course, quite why North Korea would waste any of its scarce WMD cargo on New Zealand is unclear. But if North Korea succeeds in developing its intercontinental missiles and in matching nuclear warheads to them, the range of these weapons will extend beyond 10,000 kilometres. That may be the approximate distance from Pyongyang to Auckland. But don’t expect New Zealand political leaders to be making that connection any time soon.
Secondly, and more importantly, the Turnbull government has been effusive in its support for Washington’s campaign of pressure against North Korea, including the military portions. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has reinforced the Trump Administration’s all options on the table logic, and has indicated that even more pressure on North Korea is needed. That includes from China whose economic sanctions, she has argued, could go even further. And we musn’t overlook the fact that the same US aircraft battle carrier group that is heading to north Asian waters a bit later than first thought is doing so fresh from exercising with the Australian Defence Force.
In the event the Trump Administration decided to use force against North Korea, we could expect that some of the first indications of support would come from Australia. But New Zealand would probably prefer a situation where two important prerequisites had been met. First, the United States would need to be responding to North Korea doing more than a test of a nuclear device or missile. It would need to be a clear act of North Korean aggression where America’s use of force could be justified as an act of self-defence. With nearly 30,000 of its military personnel stationed in the Republic of Korea, that would not be a difficult argument for the United States to make. New Zealand, for its part, continues to make a small contribution of personnel deployed in South Korea to monitor the armistice struck over 60 years ago.
But it is not clear that North Korea will act quite as clearly as that. We’d could see a confusing situation where rising tensions create incentives for both sides to go first. Washington might well decide that it needs to conduct limited attacks before North Korea resorts to actual violence. That moment, where the self-defence logic becomes strained, would pose a diplomatic challenge for New Zealand.
Second, New Zealand’s political support for any US military action against North Korea would also depend on the level of legitimacy offered by the wider international community. In that best of worlds, this would involve advance approval from the UN Security Council. As New Zealand knows from its recent experience on that Council, China and Russia have not always stood in the way of economic sanctions being applied to North Korea. But this does not mean they would keep their vetoes in their pockets for a resolution endorsing the use of force. In the best of situations, that process would take time. And the US might wish to act quickly if it thought the prospect of North Korean violence was an especially urgent one. In these more confusing circumstances, a New Zealand Prime Minister who was willing to get out ahead of the pack and endorse anticipatory US military action against North Korea would be making a very risky political judgment.
As Mr English might put it, any such speculation is still at the hypothetical stage. My guess is that even in the Trump era, Washington will not pull the trigger unless it decides that force is necessary to reduce the chances of a major North Korean attack or if it finds that Pyongyang has already crossed that perilous threshold. Especially if it decided to anticipate North Korean action with action of its own, Washington would need to remember that its ally on the ground in the peninsula, South Korea, stands to lose so much should things go very wrong. And while the Abe government has practically endorsed the US show of pressure, Japan also has a good deal to be anxious about.
The New Zealand government’s characteristic reluctance to engage publically on this matter could mean that it has very mixed feelings about where all this may be heading. That disquiet will mainly be about North Korea’s provocations. But while Wellington does not want the Trump Administration to neglect its security responsibilities in Asia, and sees a strong US presence as a crucial factor in the region’s equilibrium, it also may be worried that the military side of Washington’s current campaign of pressure is raising too many risks for comfort.
New Zealand knows that its preferred mix of negotiations, UN resolutions and economic measures have had limited effect in slowing down North Korea’s nuclear and missile expansion in recent times. But it would probably prefer to have the can kicked down the road than deal with a region where the United States had come to see force as the answer. After all, New Zealand has made the most of an Asia-Pacific region that has been prosperous in large part because it has also been relatively peaceful. At the same time, the more that Washington finds reasons to worry about North Korea’s growing arsenal, the more it will be dissatisfied with that policy status quo. If and when the Trump Administration decides that violent action needs to be part of the answer to that growing North Korean challenge, New Zealand is unlikely to find it easy to know quite how to respond.
Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: North Korea's Day of the Sun parade, 15 April 2017. Image by Flickr user Babeltravel and used under Creative Commons License.