North Korea crisis: Why New Zealand can't fully back the US or China

by Robert Patman / 23 August, 2017
 Members of the Socialist Women's Union in the DPRK at a rally in support of North Korea's stance against the US. Photo / Getty Images

With 70 per cent of our trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific, any conflict on the Korean peninsula could have serious consequences for New Zealand. So what should our part be in helping to prevent it?

New Zealand should have few illusions about its diplomatic influence in the North Korea nuclear crisis, but it has strong reasons to do more than adopt a wait-and-see stance towards this potentially catastrophic conflict.

Recent developments have been North Korea’s July 4 and July 28 tests of long range missiles, which elevated tensions with Washington because they showed Pyongyang had mastered multistage ICBM technology that would ultimately allow it to hit the US mainland, and the UN Security Council’s unanimous decision on 5 August to impose tough new sanctions on North Korea.

These new sanctions could reduce North Korea export earnings by more than one billion dollars per year, and if China, Pyongyang’s main backer, implements them fully, the sanctions also have the potential to really hurt Kim Jong-un’s ruling circle. 

Such events have coincided with a flurry of threats between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. The North Korean dictator said his country was willing to fire missiles toward Guam.

President Trump responded by threatening North Korea with “fire and fury”, a statement derided as a “load of nonsense” in Pyongyang.

Mr. Trump then upped the ante further by telling reporters that his comments about North Korea were perhaps not tough enough, and recently tweeted US military options in North Korea were “locked and loaded.”

Meanwhile, China has pleaded with North Korea and the US to peacefully resolve the crisis while German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the escalation of rhetoric was “the wrong answer” and advocated an international diplomatic response, centred on close US-China cooperation.

To date, Bill English’s National-led government has indicated it broadly supports a diplomatic resolution of the North Korea nuclear problem.

While foreign minister, Gerry Brownlee, described Kim Jong-un as “a nutter” immediately after Pyongyang’s July 4 missile test, Mr English has subsequently said he did not support comments that escalate tension on the Korean peninsular.

In this vein, the New Zealand Prime Minister characterised President Trump’s recent stream of invective as “not helpful” and wanted to work with the UN, US, China and Russia to put pressure on North Korea to achieve a peaceful resolution.

As a country with strong non-nuclear credentials and one which has good relations with the US, China and South Korea, it is important the New Zealand government leaves no doubts internationally about its interests and values in relation to North Korea’s nuclear proliferation activities.

New Zealand has a big stake in regional stability in Northeast Asia. Any conflict on the Korean peninsula would have potentially serious consequences for the Asia-Pacific region and for the New Zealand economy. Today, 14 of New Zealand’s top 20 export markets are in the Asia Pacific, and two of its major export markets are in China and the US respectively.

New Zealand has signed Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with both China and South Korea, and is currently seeking to reactivate the Trans-Pacific-Partnership agreement after the Trump administration. Altogether, about 70% of New Zealand’s trade and investment occurs within the Asia-Pacific region.

It is clear that New Zealand must actively encourage and support international efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. After all, there is agreement in principle amongst many of the major players in Northeast Asia – the US, China and South Korea – the Korean peninsula should be free of nuclear weapons.

But an expanded New Zealand diplomatic effort to resolve the North Korea crisis must go hand in glove with the frank recognition Wellington does not share the worldviews of either the Trump administration in Washington or the Xi Jinping regime in Beijing.

New Zealand’s opposition to nuclear weapons in North Korea is not an endorsement of Trump’s ‘America First’ strategy or an acceptance of Beijing’s China-centric approach to its regional neighbourhood.

Rather, New Zealand’s counter-proliferation diplomacy in Northeast Asia must be consistent with core national concerns such as upholding a rules-based international order, maintaining support for human rights, expanding free trade, and backing multilateralism.

New Zealand should discourage the Trump administration from taking unilateral military action against Pyongyang while impressing upon Beijing the need to faithfully implement the tough round of sanctions agreed at the UNSC on 5 August.

Moreover, as a former member of the UNSC between 2015 and 2016, the New Zealand government should signal to the rest of the international community that the problem of nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia has such wide ramifications that it cannot be left exclusively to the US, North Korea and China to resolve in a manner they deem appropriate.


Robert G. Patman is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Otago.


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