North Korea: a dual threat to NZ

North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and missiles are challenging governments throughout the Asia-Pacific and beyond.  Developing a nuclear weapon deliverable at long range would allow North Korea to hold hostage not only South Korea and Japan, but also Taiwan, the countries of Southeast Asia, and northern Australia.  Further, as we have seen in recent weeks, it could threaten the US territory of Guam, and also the states of Alaska, Hawaii and the cities of the western United States and Canada.

So does New Zealand’s distance from North Korea protect us from harm? 

In a limited respect, yes.  New Zealand lies outside North Korea’s 10,000km missile footprint.  The re-entry survivability and accuracy of the missiles is questionable.  North Korea has no long-range conventional military capacity to attack New Zealand directly.  In the event of a nuclear exchange, the radioactive fallout would circulate in the Northern hemisphere, buffered from the Southern hemisphere by the equatorial doldrums.

Of course this narrowly nuclear-technical analysis is incomplete.  One must consider New Zealand’s overall interests when assessing threats and opportunities.  The threat to New Zealand is twofold; direct and indirect. 

New Zealanders and their assets deployed to East Asia, particularly to South Korea, could be at direct risk of harm or damage in the event of an armed conflict.  The New Zealand Government has a half-dozen diplomatic posts in the region, a small Defence Force team posted to the Armistice Commission at the DMZ, and various defence exercises and exchanges.  Tourists, English-language teachers, and South Koreans with NZ citizenship travelling, working, or resident in South Korea number in the thousands.  Ships and aircraft carrying New Zealand passengers and cargo could be vulnerable to North Korea’s surface to air missiles, attack aircraft and submarines.

The indirect threat is mostly economic.  South Korea is New Zealand’s fifth biggest export customer.  Japan is the fourth and China is the second most valuable.  Add in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other customers in the region and one finds that the wider East Asian region takes approximately one-third of New Zealand’s exports.  An armed conflict would not only physically interrupt their transportation and distribution, but also drain financial resources and consumer demand for New Zealand’s relatively discretionary exports such as high quality foods and beverages, as priorities shifted to defence expenditures.  Freight and travel insurance premiums would soar, raising costs even if governments did not restrict non-essential imports, as they typically do during wartime.

Value chains would be interrupted and lose efficiency, economies of scale would be lost and venture capital would seek safer havens.

North Koreans rally in Pyongyang in support of the country's stance against the US. Photo: Getty Images

New Zealand would lose diplomatically as well.  New Zealand’s encouragement of multilateral diplomacy, arms control, security cooperation and greenhouse gas reduction would be side-lined as governments sought unilateral protection by military means.  North Korea’s acquisition of deployable nuclear weapons might induce South Korea and Japan to acquire counterpart arsenals to deter North Korea.  This reaction would undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and make New Zealand's signature nuclear-weapons-free policy appear quaint, naïve and irrelevant.  The New Zealand-sponsored New Agenda Coalition and draft Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty in the UN General Assembly would be ‘dead on arrival’.  New Zealand’s principled international voice would be drowned out by pragmatism, nationalism and unilateralism.

Such is a worst-case scenario.  So far, East Asian security has not deteriorated to this depth. Despite the ‘unhelpful’ fiery rhetoric of President Kim and President Trump, officials and generals of the major state players are pausing at the brink, reassessing and seeking ways to divert the military escalation into diplomatic negotiations.  Overlooked in the media coverage is the anxiety felt also by China and Russia, both well within Pyongyang’s missile range, and seemingly powerless to control their small but bellicose client.  These two powers have joined the US, Britain, and France in the UN Security Council to impose stern new economic sanctions on North Korea, potentially cutting its exports of coals, iron ore, and seafood by one-third.  This is in addition to earlier sanctions embargoing weapons sales and blacklisting banks and enterprises associated with the North Korean regime.

Most commentators urge similar responses, that is, sanctions and negotiations.  Military analysts, too, concede that even the might of the US armed forces in the Far East could not destroy North Korea’s missiles without provoking retaliation against the city of Seoul, putting 25 million South Koreans (and thousands of New Zealanders) at immediate risk.

Thus the prognosis is an uneasy twilight between war and peace on the Korean Peninsula.  North Korea’s East Asia neighbours and China, Russia, the United States – and New Zealand – face a dilemma without apparent resolution.  In a few years they will have to adapt to a nuclear-armed and missile-equipped North Korea.  Without a feasible plan to forestall it, or dismantle it, they can only deter North Korea’s leader from carrying out his threats.  President Kim meanwhile can continue to bluster, threaten and extort diplomatic deference and economic aid, as his father did so successfully in the past.  

The government of New Zealand, and New Zealanders in commerce, education and tourism, are advised to carry on their diplomatic, economic and defence activities as usual with like-minded counterparts in East Asia. To do otherwise would be self-defeating, and would allow President Kim Jong Un to prevail in the contest of rhetoric and test of wills.

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