North Korea Dips Toe Into Australian Waters
By Hamish McDonaldJanuary 14, 2013
Even while a diplomatic foray by Google’s Eric Schmidt and US politician Bill Richardson brought no immediate breakthrough, global outsider North Korea is re-opening its embassy in Australia’s capital.
The late Kim Jong Il did not wait around after the November 2007 elections in Australia to see if the new Labor government would prove more sympathetic to his isolated North Korean regime than its conservative predecessor led by John Howard. All signals were that Labor would be just as tough in applying the same rigid sanctions on trade and contact imposed a year earlier, in response to his regime’s dash to test nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them.
In January 2008, a little over a month after Kevin Rudd was sworn in as the Labor prime minister, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) closed its embassy in Canberra.
It had maintained the mission in a suburban Canberra house since May 2002 through successive crises, including Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, its listing as part of George Bush’s “axis of evil”, a nuclear test explosion and, closer to home, the seizure of the North Korean ship Pong Su just after its crew had landed a massive heroin haul on a Victorian beach.
A shortage of hard currency was given as the reason for the embassy shut down, although it must be said Pyongyang always works in mysterious ways. The previous embassy in Canberra had lasted barely a year, from 1974 to 1975, and its existence was marked by unfortunate coincidences: its diplomats crashed their Mercedes-Benz outside the home of the South Korean military attaché. They were then told the only car in stock at the local dealer had just been ordered by Seoul’s ambassador. The first Australia’s Foreign Affairs Department knew of the embassy’s withdrawal was when someone spotted its entire staff and their families at the airport. The only diplomats Australia has ever stationed in Pyongyang were expelled soon thereafter.
But the North Koreans’ instincts were right. Under Rudd, and since June 2010 under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the Labor government continues with sanctions tighter than almost any other Western power. In addition to upholding United Nations embargoes on military-use materials, Canberra blacklists a dozen North Korean companies, bars exports of luxury items that would be consumed by the country’s elite, and refuses visas to North Koreans, effectively halting educational and other exchanges.
“Our sanctions are more severe than anyone else’s, including the Americans,” says Peter Drysdale, the Australian National University economist who co-wrote the government’s recent white paper on Australia in the Asian Century. “People who had any sort of engagement received silly bloody letters telling them of the potential risks. That has been one of the least pleasant episodes in Australian history.”
Pyongyang has sent a request to re-open its Canberra embassy, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) confirms to The Global Mail, though no time has been fixed. South Korean officials say the North is considering March or April.
What the North Koreans hope to achieve for the additional burden on their hard currency finances is unclear. The South Koreans think the aim of the reinstated embassy is partly to widen diplomatic contacts, but also to tap into investment and charitable funds it might glean from Australia’s 160,000 people of Korean descent and, indirectly, from the 1.7 million-strong Korean diaspora in the United States.
DFAT appears to view the proposed embassy as just another channel through which to belabour the North about security and other issues. “The Australian government does not oppose the re-opening of the embassy, which would provide a readily available channel to Pyongyang to convey messages of importance to Australia, including on the DPRK’s nuclear and missile activities and human rights,” a spokesman said.
Yet expectancy is building that the new leaderships in northeast Asia — Kim Jong Un in the North, newly elected Park Geun-hye in the South, and Xi Jinping in China — could set in train initiatives that work to lower warlike tensions on the Korean peninsula. In addition, Barack Obama has achieved re-election. Less promising is the return of Shinzo Abe in Japan.
The just completed visit to Pyongyang by Google chairman Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson represents a new attempt by US liberals to redirect American policy away from the hardline confrontation set by George Bush’s neo-cons. Schmidt is also chairman of Washington’s New American Foundation, a think-tank aimed at bringing “new ideas” to information-age policies. Richardson has a long record of second-track diplomacy with North Korea.
While the visit was exploratory, and didn’t immediately bring the release of the latest American citizen arrested for “hostile acts”, it may have stirred Kim Jong Un about his country’s isolation from new technology that would transform his resource-poor state (though at great political risk). Most of the country’s computer users have access only to a domestic intranet; only a few thousand of the most trusted and closely watched insiders would have access to the worldwide web.
After his first year as supreme leader in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un, thought to have turned 30 on January 8, seems to have achieved a remarkably smooth succession to the third-generation of the communist dynasty founded by his late grandfather Kim Il Sung, whom he physically resembles.
The sclerotic aura of the leadership around Kim Jong Il, reminiscent of the pre-Gorbachev succession of elderly Soviet leaders, has been replaced by vigorous youth. Seoul’s North Korea watchers are now looking out for the long rumoured “First Baby” from Kim and his consort, Ri Sol Ju, who sported what seemed to be a “baby bump” in December but is now in normal shape. Conjecture has it that a baby has been born, but that it was not the desired male heir.
Kim’s New Year address on television, the first in 17 years, because his late father was an awkward public speaker, seemed to point to bolder reforms. The Korean Workers’ Party has been revived after years of subordination to the Korean People’s Army under Kim Jong Il’s Songun (Military First) policy. Kim Jong Un put becoming an “economic giant” through technology as top priority. Officials were urged to abandon “the old way of thinking”.
“In order to effect a radical change in this year’s campaign to build a thriving socialist country, officials should make a fundamental turnabout in their ideological viewpoint, work style and attitude,” Kim said.
Certainly there were enough tributes to the Juche (self-sufficiency) ideology of the two previous Kims, to the need for military preparedness, and to the goal of reunification for sceptical hawks in the United States to wonder aloud if anything had changed.
Kim Jong Un’s grooming for the succession had been marked by the sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of a South Korean island; in the year since his father died, by the launch of a satellite in December, which was seen as cover for testing of a long-range missile which would have been in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution.
But observers like Andray Abrahamian, who works in Beijing for Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based group which aims to break down North Korea’s isolation, think Kim Jong Un is looking for moderate reforms to improve the economy, and rebalance resources away from the military. “I think these changes need to be supported by the international community,” he says.
However he sees little or no prospect of Pyongyang giving up the nuclear capability it has acquired at such cost and risk, and sanctions are tied to this issue.
“It’s tough for Australia to weaken the autonomous sanction regime when it is explicitly linked to an issue on which there is no progress and will likely be no progress,” Abrahamian says.
“However, if the government is going to make a case that UN sanctions are sufficient and that the ‘sanctions-plus’ don’t serve a positive purpose, that time may well be now, given that the South Koreans are likely going to reach out to Pyongyang, and that, moreover, Pyongyang is looking for more ways to engage the international economy under their new leadership.”
Park Geun-hye, who won office in South Korea in December, and who will be sworn into office next month, has the credibility to make fresh overtures to the North, says the ANU’s Drysdale. She is the daughter of the late dictator Park Chung-hee who ruled South Korea with an iron fist between 1961 and 1979. A North Korean assassination squad killed her mother in a raid on the presidential palace. Her back on the conservative side of South Korean politics is secure.
From her campaign speeches, Park looks set to seek a midway among the approaches taken by her predecessors towards the North. It won’t be as generous as the “Sunshine” policies started by Kim Dae-jung, which were brazenly exploited by Kim Jong Il with few concessions in return, though they did achieve a measure of exposure among many North Koreans to the successes of South Korea. But nor will it be a tough as that taken by outgoing president Lee Myung-bak, which drew forceful responses.
“I plan to break with this black-or-white, appeasement-or-antagonism approach and advance a more balanced North Korea policy,” she said, talking of a “diplomacy of trust and a new Korean Peninsula”, pushing incremental co-operation in economic and social fields, with North Korea rewarded for steps towards denuclearisation.
As Abrahamian suggests, this could allow Canberra to extricate itself from its sanctions limits and, working with the South Koreans (who are also members of the UN Security Council for the next two years), pursue a more nuanced approach. One aspect being pushed by Drysdale is for Australia to rejoin the efforts to support the opening of the North Korean economy.
From the time of the settlement of the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1994 until the second one that flared in 2002 and which still continues, the ANU ran residential courses for three batches of North Korean officials to train them in how to run a market economy.
The 21 officials, all under 35, successfully completed programs that prepared them for graduate study, though one of the “minders” had a nervous breakdown on returning to Pyongyang. “What effect did they have?” Drysdale asks. “The brightest guy in the first group was involved in writing their foreign investment rules, two of the Finance Ministry people worked on introducing a tax system for the first time, and another one or two on arrangements for what they call non-state, ie private, enterprises.”
“Overall the programs had mind-changing effects on the recipients. One guy visited someone exporting hops to South Korea. I later met him in the UK buying a second-hand brewery and on my last visit saw it in operation in Pyongyang. It was quite a good drop. The effects may have been a bit haphazard but there was a small positive effect there. The North Koreans who are on the opening-up side want to do some more [training of a similar nature]. They think it’s effective.”
Mack Williams, a former Australian ambassador to Seoul, was involved in a parallel program at Sydney University, which introduced a group of North Korean statisticians to courses in demography that would help chart the appalling rates of child malnutrition in their country. Another course trained foreign ministry officials in the paperwork needed for aid programs with international agencies.
Again it was mind-changing. “Initially one of the statisticians said: ‘That’s not the way we do it in North Korea’ — meaning it was the wrong way,” Williams recalls. “By the time they left they had downloaded the South Korean system and they took it back with them.”
By 2006 both initiatives had ended, with Bush’s hardline ambassador at the UN, John Bolton, having succeeded in getting the UN agencies to cut off funding, and the Howard government applying the visa ban.
Williams, who now chairs the University of Technology Sydney’s external arm, Insearch, has recently put out feelers about doing something in North Korea similar to the undergraduate degree courses it runs for 3,000 students at a campus in Shanghai, or the English training for more than 5,000 students in Vietnam. “Any time I have talked with anyone connected with the government I have been told: Forget it,” he says. “Canberra had become ultra, ultra cautious and would not countenance anything.”
Williams says there is pressure within DFAT and from outsiders like himself for a more active and independent approach. “Many of us have felt for a long time that we could be doing a lot more around the edges in North Korea, both for our own interests when it does open up and for the international situation,” he says.
But it’s broader than North Korea, he adds: “It is another case of being holier than the Pope [in this case, the US] and that move away from the albeit modest degree of independence we used to have in some areas of our foreign policy, and which many of us spent so long in trying to manage.’’
Williams cites the moves, notably by Gareth Evans when he was foreign minister under Bob Hawke in the 1980s, to break deadlocks in Cambodia; the promotion of the ASEAN Regional Forum as the first region-wide security meeting, and Australia’s early involvement with China’s post-Mao economic reformers.
Under the present interpretation of the American alliance, Williams says, “we just don’t have the latitude to do this sort of thing”.