Australia — Interview with Defence Minster Stephen Smith about NKorea

DAVID SPEERS: Join­ing us now to look at the devel­op­ments on the Kore­an Penin­su­la is the Defence Min­ster Stephen Smith.
Min­is­ter, thanks for join­ing us.
These new threats from North Korea today about more attacks if the alleged provo­ca­tion con­tin­ues from the South, what do you make of that?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think the good thing is that in the last 24 hours, frankly all we’ve seen has been rhetoric. I regard that as a good sign and the provo­ca­tion, frankly, is the reverse. South Korea, the Repub­lic of Korea, has con­duct­ed itself in a very restrained and exem­plary way in the face of enor­mous provo­ca­tion this year and previously.

DAVID SPEERS: Which isn’t easy for it, you would think. A very ner­vous pop­u­la­tion there. 

STEPHEN SMITH: And this com­ing off the back of the tor­pe­do­ing of the Cheo­nan, their corvette, the loss of 52 lives and on this occa­sion real­ly irre­spon­si­ble, unpro­voked bat­tery attack, artillery attack with the loss of lives and injuries to civilians.

So it’s a ter­ri­ble devel­op­ment of events that we’ve seen…

DAVID SPEERS: Do you know what’s pro­voked it yet? Are you any clos­er to know­ing what sparked this?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, North Korea, as the For­eign Min­is­ter has said, is one of, if not the most imper­vi­ous regimes in the world. So it’s very dif­fi­cult get­ting into their mindset.

What we do know is we’ve had the ter­ri­ble inci­dent in the last 24/48 hours, the Cheo­nan, the unveil­ing of fur­ther devel­op­ments, bad devel­op­ments so far as their nuclear pro­gram is con­cerned and in the last cou­ple of years fur­ther attempts at mis­sile and deliv­ery sys­tem tests.

DAVID SPEERS: But after the events this week, has Aus­tralia changed its defence pos­ture at all, or are we like­ly to?

STEPHEN SMITH: No and no. We are first­ly, in terms of the bilat­er­al rela­tion, we have a very strong rela­tion­ship with South Korea, with the Repub­lic of Korea. Our col­lab­o­ra­tion on the defence and secu­ri­ty and strate­gic front has enhanced in the last cou­ple of years. In the next cou­ple of days I’ll speak to their Defence Min­is­ter, Defence Min­is­ter Kim. I saw him recent­ly in Hanoi for the ASEAN+ Defence Minister’s Meet­ing that we’re both parties.

But we have a very strong rela­tion­ship with them which goes back to the Kore­an War in the 1950s. But we pro­vid­ed tech­ni­cal and sci­en­tif­ic assis­tance for them when they were inves­ti­gat­ing the Cheo­nan. They, of course, look to their ally in the first instance, the Unit­ed States, for sup­port but we are giv­ing them every sup­port in terms of our sup­port for action in the Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil on the nuclear issues, our con­dem­na­tion of North Korea’s con­duct on the Cheo­nan and our con­dem­na­tion of their con­duct recently. 

DAVID SPEERS: If things did esca­late though, in this very uncer­tain sit­u­a­tion on the Kore­an Penin­su­la, could this be a sit­u­a­tion where Aus­tralia becomes mil­i­tar­i­ly involved?

STEPHEN SMITH: First­ly, we should always take these things step by step. That’s the first point. And in the cur­rent envi­ron­ment, the cur­rent con­text, I see that as being most unlike­ly. So we’re a very long way from that. Indeed, I think if you look at South Korea’s restrained response, the Unit­ed States indi­cat­ed it wants to take time to con­tem­plate how it wants to respond and sup­port the Repub­lic of Korea. This is seen as a calm and restrained response, which is a good thing. 

The first thing we want to do is to de-esca­late to avoid mis­cal­cu­la­tion or fur­ther inci­dents, get the thing back onto an even keel and then work through, whether it’s through the Unit­ed Nations, whether it’s using, for exam­ple, the Six Par­ty Talks to effec­tive­ly hold North Korea to account. 

DAVID SPEERS: Has Chi­na done enough this week in response?

STEPHEN SMITH: Gen­er­al­ly we have said to Chi­na on North Korea gen­er­al­ly and nuclear issues, Chi­na does need to use its influ­ence. And in the past we’ve said we’d like to see Chi­na use its influ­ence more. 

One good sign that has emerged this week is that on the Cheo­nan issue, for exam­ple, Rus­sia was quite silent. We’ve already seen For­eign Min­is­ter Lavrov come out with a robust state­ment indi­cat­ing that Rus­sia, the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion, believes this is a most unwel­come development.

So we’re pleased that Rus­sia has been more active on this issue…

DAVID SPEERS: What about China?

STEPHEN SMITH: We would like to see, and we’ve said this in the past, pub­licly and pri­vate­ly to Chi­na, we’d like to see Chi­na seek to use its influ­ence on North Korea more. It does have a good rela­tion­ship with North Korea, both his­tor­i­cal­ly and at present, so it is impor­tant for Chi­na to seek to use its influ­ence on North Korea.

DAVID SPEERS: does China’s actions this year over some of those ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­putes with Japan over the South Chi­na Sea, does that give you a bit of a wor­ry that they may not be will­ing to step up to the plate inter­na­tion­al­ly on this one?

STEPHEN SMITH: I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly see the link. Every­one knows, includ­ing Chi­na, that North Korea is high­ly prob­lem­at­ic and dif­fi­cult to engage. Chi­na, of course, is a par­ty to so called Six Par­ty Talks, which is the region­al and inter­na­tion­al insti­tu­tion that we’ve been using, the inter­na­tion­al community’s been using, to influ­ence North Korea on nuclear issues.

But in terms of Chi­na and ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­putes either in the South Chi­na Sea or the East Chi­na Sea, it’s impor­tant first­ly to bear in mind that Chi­na is not the only coun­try where there are ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­putes in that part of the world, first­ly. Sec­ond­ly, we had a very good meet­ing at the ASEAN + Defence Minister’s Meet­ing about this very issue. 

Australia’s been asked with Malaysia to co-chair an expert work­ing group through that region­al Defence Minister’s meet­ing, and that’s a good devel­op­ment. But we have said when, for exam­ple, Gen­er­al Guo, the Vice-Chair of the Chi­nese Mil­i­tary Com­mis­sion was in Can­ber­ra ear­li­er this year, we made the point to Gen­er­al Guo that in these issues we don’t take sides in terms of a ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­pute, but we do want to see these issues resolved in accor­dance with inter­na­tion­al law, in accor­dance with the law of the sea and in a man­ner which doesn’t bring con­cern or ten­sion to the region. 

The open­ness of sea lanes and respect for the law of the sea are very impor­tant for us as an island con­ti­nent. We are very eco­nom­i­cal­ly depen­dent on sea lanes through that part of the world and generally. 

DAVID SPEERS: Min­is­ter, can I ask you about anoth­er mat­ter? Final­ly, Afghanistan — as this year draws to a close and I sup­pose the fight­ing sea­son in Afghanistan tends to wind down as they head into the win­ter months as well, what progress can you point to this year in Afghanistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: Domes­ti­cal­ly first, I think the Par­lia­men­tary debate was a very good thing to do. I think that’s giv­en a much wider and bet­ter appre­ci­a­tion of the chal­lenge that we face and what we’re try­ing to do. So that was a good thing.

Sec­ond­ly, the Lis­bon Sum­mit was very suc­cess­ful. It’s drawn togeth­er all of the strands of the mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal strat­e­gy and the com­mit­ment to tran­si­tion and we now have a very good group of key play­ers from NATO Sec­re­tary Gen­er­al Ras­mussen to Gen­er­al Petraeus, a very good group of play­ers, com­ple­ment­ing per­son­al­i­ties to dri­ve the mission.

The regret, and I’ve said this in the Par­lia­men­tary debate, the regret is we’ve now got a very good mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal strat­e­gy and can move to imple­ment it, but we are years late. The great regret of this is that the dis­trac­tion of Iraq, not get­ting to a defined strat­e­gy much quick­er sees us being in Afghanistan for a longer peri­od of time.

DAVID SPEERS: Would you agree that there hasn’t been enough on the ground improve­ment this year?

STEPHEN SMITH: No. We think — and Sec­re­tary Gen­er­al Ras­mussen said it, Gen­er­al Petraeus said it, our own CDF says it and the Prime Min­is­ter and I have said it in our gen­er­al remarks — we think we’ve made progress in the last six months or so.

We are now in the tra­di­tion­al wind­ing down as win­ter emerges. The expec­ta­tion is that there will con­tin­ue to be fight­ing, it will con­tin­ue to be dif­fi­cult, it will con­tin­ue to be dan­ger­ous. The Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force will con­tin­ue to do its job, includ­ing the use of spe­cial oper­a­tions and spe­cial forces. But there will be some­thing of a wind down.

So when spring re-emerges, that will be, we think, a key time. It will enable us to see whether we’ve con­sol­i­dat­ed gains and will also enable us to see whether the Tal­iban come back in strength or force. So next year will be a very impor­tant year, but we do think we have made a lot of progress into, to use the mil­i­tary ter­mi­nol­o­gy, in seiz­ing ground and deny­ing the Tal­iban of ground and space. And whilst we’re cau­tious about it, we are qui­et­ly, cau­tious­ly opti­mistic that we have made some ground on that front.

But more impor­tant­ly, we think we’ve made some ground on the train­ing front and the Afghan Secu­ri­ty Forces being able to plan and take charge of the secu­ri­ty for the Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions this year was a good sign. They are also devel­op­ing their own capacity.

We don’t want to be there for­ev­er, but we can’t leave tomor­row. So the only way to suc­cess­ful­ly meet our objec­tives is to put the Afghan Secu­ri­ty Forces in the posi­tion of being able to lead those secu­ri­ty oper­a­tions. We still believe we’re on track to do that and meet the inter­na­tion­al community’s ambi­tion of a tran­si­tion by the end of 2014. DAVID SPEERS: Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith, thank you.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you very much.

DAVID SPEERS: You don’t want to give us a heads up on the anti-siphon­ing announce­ment we’re about to go to? You were there in Cab­i­net, of course, this morning.

STEPHEN SMITH: I’ll leave it to my name­sake Stephen, I’ll leave it to Sen­a­tor Con­roy. I’ll just rejoice in the last Ques­tion Time for this year.

DAVID SPEERS: Indeed. We wish you well and a good Par­lia­men­tary break as well. Thanks for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much. 

Press release
Min­is­te­r­i­al Sup­port and Pub­lic Affairs,
Depart­ment of Defence,
Can­ber­ra, Australia 

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