NZ on North Korea: should we swallow a nuclear rat?

With the world's eyes on North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-un, Victoria University's Robert Ayson says sanctions and diplomacy may not be the best way to halt the country's nuclear programme. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images.

With New Zealand among those at an international summit in Canada to discuss North Korea's nuclear programme, Robert Ayson says we may have to swallow a "nuclear rat" to prevent war on the Korean peninsula - even if it cuts against our anti-nuclear ideals.

Winston Peters has headed to the Vancouver meeting on North Korea armed with New Zealand's preference for negotiated outcomes to security crises. That traditional commitment to talking, not fighting, shines through in Peters’ view that the reopened communication lines between North and South Korea presents the most promising opportunity for diplomacy in some time.

Beyond the obvious prestige in participating in the Winter Olympics, it’s unclear quite why North Korea is buddying up to the South. It works better for Wellington’s world view if Kim Jong-un genuinely wants Korean rapprochement because of the sanctions campaigns that New Zealand has supported. But it would be harder if Donald Trump's outlandish military threats have helped in any way. After all, New Zealand's previous prime minister, Bill English, described one of the president’s earlier proclamations as "not helpful".

But this speculation could be temporary if North Korea's previous behaviour is any guide. There is certainly some divide and rule going on: Kim wants to separate South Korea from its US ally. For Pyongyang to call for discussions often means it wants to extract some concessions before resuming its bad behaviour.

Once the Olympic flame has been extinguished, we could soon see a new North Korean missile or nuclear test. And it's hard to find anybody who thinks Kim Jong-un is preparing to enter a wider set of negotiations in which he will be willing to bargain away North Korea's nuclear arsenal. His regime sees nukes as its security guarantee. For Pyongyang, a nuclear arsenal offers an irreplaceable form of international leverage.

"[An American military] attack will become even more likely once the US judges that North Korea can bring a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile back into the Earth's atmosphere - and that judgment may be just months away."

Hence the Ardern government should have modest expectations about what any further diplomacy can achieve on this issue. It should avoid thinking that if tighter sanctions pressure on North Korea is signalled at Vancouver – something Peters would like to see – Kim Jong-un's commitment to missile and nuclear expansion will alter. That's not just because China, North Korea's main economic partner, will be absent from the meeting in Canada. Even if Beijing was willing and able to maximise pressure on its ally, it is not clear that Pyongyang's priorities would be reversed.

If North Korea could be pressured into new and wider talks, the best that might be hoped for is the slowing down of its nuclear modernisation process. China wants North Korea to agree to a freeze on its program in exchange for the cessation of American and South Korean military exercises.

But Washington sees this as a very bad deal. Trump is not the only American who thinks that continued military pressure can influence North Korea's behaviour. And China’s idea is hardly new or untried. Previous efforts at capping North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have had a mixed record.

But the Ardern government might well be willing to quietly endorse the suboptimal freeze idea because the most talked-about alternative is so bleak. This is a limited American military strike on North Korean targets which clearly runs against New Zealand preferences and interests.

That attack will become even more likely once the US judges that North Korea can bring a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile back into the Earth's atmosphere – and that judgment may be just months away.

If the Trump administration is convinced that negotiations will not bring an end to the North Korean nuclear problem, and that the use of force is becoming a more urgent priority, what should New Zealand say? In public, we can expect a continuation of our endorsement of multilateral diplomatic efforts, despite their limited success on this issue. But behind the scenes, might New Zealand policymakers be hoping the Trump administration decides that it can deter a nuclear North Korea, and therefore has less need to consider preventive military action?

"If an American belief that it can and will deter North Korea reduces the appeal of preventive military strikes, it might be worth it for New Zealand to swallow a nuclear rat."

This idea may well have crossed Trump's mind. He has said his “button” is bigger than Kim Jong-un’s. North Korea isn’t the nuclear pipsqueak that it was just a few years ago, and probably has more than two dozen warheads as well as missiles with increasing range. But America's capacity to accomplish the assured destruction of North Korea is undeniable. Unlike North Korea, the US can achieve massive nuclear damage regardless of whether it strikes first or second or all at once or a series of attacks.

As a leader who is very good at manipulating threats of violence to try to influence others, Kim Jong-un can be expected to understand this. He is not the crazed leader that Gerry Brownlee suggested a few months ago.

But the deterrence argument poses an obvious philosophical challenge to New Zealand. The idea that the region’s peace rests on a great power’s proven capacity for nuclear destruction is anathema to the disarmament policy that is built into Wellington's approach to international relations. Ardern knows that she follows in the footsteps of two Labour giants, David Lange and Helen Clark, who were leading architects and proponents of this argument.

But if an American belief that it can and will deter North Korea reduces the appeal of preventive military strikes, it might be worth it for New Zealand to swallow a nuclear rat. Of course, whether war on the Korean peninsula occurs or is avoided does not rest on the decisions New Zealand makes and the beliefs that it holds. But our voice still counts in the international quest for options; hence the significance of Peters’ trip.

That means finding options that do not place too much hope in diplomacy or end many lives through violence. This may lead Wellington to wonder if the least ugly option is to persuade Washington that, despite our principled protestations, its nuclear deterrent can work against North Korea.

  • Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University, a foundation supporter and sponsor of Newsroom.