Trouble in North Asia

When Australia’s Defence White Paper was being crafted in 2015, it noted that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK] would continue to be a major source of regional instability.

The White Paper noted that “North Korea’s threatening behaviour includes its nuclear weapons program, its ballistic missile tests, and its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. North Korea’s behaviour especially threatens its immediate neighbours, particularly South Korea and Japan.”

The assessment about North Korea has been proven by the events since. The recent DPRK missile launches have ratcheted up already simmering tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the surrounding region. Defence commentators quickly observed that the regime would soon have the ability to launch a ballistic missile against US cities. One noted that Australia itself could be a target.

But more likely targets are closer to Pyongyang: South Korea and Japan. With the impeachment of President Park, South Korea is experiencing the considerable political turmoil of an election campaign without a national leader.

Interestingly, the candidate elected, Moon Jae-un, fled from the north, and still has extended family there. The election of a president sympathetic to the DPRK could embolden the hand of Pyongyang.

Also closer to North Korea is Iwakuni and Sasebo in Japan where American forces are based, including stealth fighters.

North Korea’s actions compound existing tensions in the region, especially in the China Sea. Japan, which is deploying its largest naval ship to the South China Sea, is wary of both China and North Korea.

Tensions between the two nations have simmered in the East China Sea for years. They are now spreading to the South China Sea where pressures already exist over China’s militarisation of disputed reefs and its refusal to abide by international tribunal rulings.

The Japanese government has been quietly moving military personnel to the south-west of the country, a sign that they anticipate tensions to escalate.

It was reported in the Japanese media that the US has deployed ‘Grey Eagle’ drones armed with air to ground missiles to South Korea. This follows reports that B-1 and B-52 bombers had been moved to the country. While this is part of the Foal Eagle exercise, it ratchets up pressure in the region.

If Kim Jong-un was to draw China into a regional conflict with South Korea and/or Japan, the US would have little option but to respond. US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has already voiced a tougher approach to China than the previous administration. This would have immediate ramifications for Australia and other allies.

The Chinese might like to remove the North Koran dictator, but being drawn onto the peninsula would escalate tensions along the demilitarised zone between the north and south. Historically, conflict in the region has tended to occur quickly and unexpectedly. Above all, China wants stability in the region. Australia needs to be ready, politically and strategically, for the unexpected. Tensions in the region are likely to compound in the coming months.