Worrying about North Korea
By Richard Harman (author)
Even though they are in the middle of an election campaign, Prime Minister Bill English and Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee have both been closely monitoring the deteriorating situation in North Korea over the past few days.
This reflects the concern across the East Asian region that the North Korean regime is unpredictable and becoming increasingly likely to spark a conflict.
English took time out to phone his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, because Australia (unlike New Zealand) is in a military alliance with the United States.
English said the North Korean situation was one of the highest levels of tension around security that the Asia Pacific region had seen for some time.
“I rang him (Turnbull) to get an Australian view because they are close to the US and Japan and have been focussing on the issue pretty strongly because they see an elevated level of threat to themselves,” he said.
English said that New Zealand had a positive relationship with China and that the Foreign Minister (Gerry Brownlee) had been considering what role New Zealand could play, but no decision had been made to formally approach China at this stage.
Brownlee told POLITIK that he had met with China’s Foreign Minister in Manila two weeks ago and discussed the North Korean situation.
“He simpy wanted to reassure me that China was implementing the sanctions regime, beyond that we didn’t discuss too much except that I said that if New Zealand could ever be of any particular assistance in facilitating dialogue then obviously we would be there to help with that,” he said.
“We’re a little hamstring at the moment because we are in the middle of an election process so you can’t commit to doing too much and you can't be too active in that regard, unfortunately."
New Zealand is sympathetic to Chinese arguments that it is doing as much as it realistically can to try and stop North Korea from launching a missile aimed at either South Korea, Japan or even Guam.
And perhaps reflecting the reality of New Zealand's post-ANZUS foreign policy, Brownlee has had no high-level discussions with the US about Korea since Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited in June.
Brownlee’s main outreach on North Korea was at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue in Manila at the end of July.
That meeting was also attended by North Korea.
POLITIK understands that New Zealand officials are worried that the North Korean situation could easily turn into conflict.
Were one of its missiles to misfire and land on South Korea or Japan then the response from either country would be almost certainly military retaliation.
Apparently, the North Korean delegation was uncompromising and belligerent in closed doors meetings in Manila.
All this adds up to a challenge for the Government which has limited abilities to influence the situation but which knows it could deteriorate before election day.