Kevin Rudd interview on Radio National Breakfast with Fran Kelly – 13 August 2017
FRAN KELLY: Chinese President Xi Jinping has joined other world leaders in urging restraint amid the rapidly escalating tensions between the US and North Korea. President Xi spoke with Donald Trump over the weekend, just hours after the President tweeted that the US military solutions for Pyongyang’s nuclear missile threat were now fully in place, “locked and loaded”. In the past 24 hours, CIA director Mike Pompeo has tried to reassure Americans that he has “no intelligence” that a nuclear attack by North Korea was imminent. This is despite threats from the North Korean military that it will have a plan in place within days to fire ballistic missiles into the waters around the US territory of Guam. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd believes the world has entered a new and dangerous period and that the prospect of war on the Korean Peninsula is “becoming more possible”. Kevin Rudd joins us from New York- Kevin Rudd welcome back to breakfast.
KEVIN RUDD: Good morning Fran, good to be on the program.
FRAN KELLY: Presidents Trump and Xi have spoken over the weekend about the North Korea threat, China is widely regarded as critical to the resolution of the nuclear crisis. But, in your view, and you’re situated there in New York, has Washington given up on Beijing’s capacity or preparedness to exert enough influence over the regime in Pyongyang?
KEVIN RUDD: No they haven’t and that’s evidenced by the fact that the United States was on the phone as you just indicated, with the Chinese leadership last Friday. I think what’s true, however, is that the Americans now have less confidence of China’s ability to deliver, that is, the leverage necessary on Pyongyang to a) stop the testing program and b) get rid of the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that they’ve already accumulated. I think, though, we have entered into a difficult and dangerous time. War on the peninsula is by no means probable. However, conflict, I think on the part of people analyzing it closely, becomes more and more possible, which is why we need calm language, solid diplomacy, and not the sort of waving of arms into the air which we seemed to have seen from Mr. Turnbull in recent days about his ANZUS pronouncements.
FRAN KELLY: I’ll come to ANZUS in a minute but let’s go with your thoughts on this because ok, you’ve written an op-ed recently and you’ve written in that that the world is “sleepwalking blindly unaware of the abyss that lies ahead”. I’m not sure that people are blindly unaware anymore but if China can’t influence Pyongyang to pull back its nuclear ambitions do you think there is a real possibility of US pre-emptive strike action to try and knock out North Korean’s military installations, do you think that we’re “blindly unaware” that that is a closer option than we think?
KEVIN RUDD: Well the piece I think you’re referring to is an opinion piece I wrote in last Friday’s Financial Times. And it simply said that there was danger we were sleepwalking towards crisis and possible conflict. And the analogy I’m drawing there is pretty simple; namely that if you go back 100 years, none of the leaders at the time actually thought that World War I could ever happen. And that in turn caused them to become increasingly reckless in their behavior in the lead up to the events of August ’14. It’s that analogy I’m seeking to bring to bear as it relates to the Korean Peninsula. As to what could happen here, I think one of the key problems at the heart of the issue right now is that the Chinese, in their heart of hearts, their mind of minds, they don’t believe that the United States is serious about the possibility of any unilateral military attack. Our best understanding, as people who follow the debate here in the United States, is that the US unilateral military option is by no means off the table. This is, I think, a real danger of strategic miscommunication between the two.
FRAN KELLY: And how can this miscommunication be, if there, as we’ve said earlier, the two Presidents, Xi and Donald Trump, spoke over the weekend? Are we being naïve to think that there’s a lack of understanding here? Surely not.
KEVIN RUDD: No, I think the Chinese deep calculus is that the United States would never do it because of the high risk of retaliatory military strike then by the North Koreans against South Korea. Therefore, on the Chinese calculation about that, they say that the United States is all bluff and they will never do it otherwise they will be sacrificing South Korea and shattering their future alliance with both Seoul and possibly with Tokyo as well. The danger is, the United States, I believe, will look at this question of the North Korean nuclear capability first and foremost through the lens of the threat which it constitutes the United States mainland and its overseas territories Guam. And we’ve had the threats in the last several days in relation to Guam. That’s what I think is the problem.
FRAN KELLY: The third option which you referred to in your piece and which also Paul Keating has spoken about just in the last few days, is that the world needs to get used to North Korea as a nuclear power and deal with it, have to come to terms with it and learn how to manage and contain the rogue state. This is as Paul Keating said the other day, “in much the same way as the West did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War”. How feasible is that, do you think Washington would ever accept North Korea as just another member of the nuclear club?
KEVIN RUDD: I’m doubtful of that, for the simple reason that North Korea is not regarded as a normal state, it hasn’t even begun the process of developing a nuclear doctrine. Where Paul is right is whether in fact we end up in that situation de facto, if in fact there is no US action and diplomacy fails. But in the piece that I wrote last Friday I canvassed what I thought was the more realistic option for the future which is the grand bargain on the Korean Peninsula. What do we want and what does the United States want? We want to get rid of the North Korean nuclear program and their existing weapons. What do the Chinese want? Well that’s something different. What they want is to ensure that the North Korea of the future does not end up being a US proxy state. They also want the regime to continue in Pyongyang. And what they would be looking towards is whether states could provide the North Koreans with an international security guarantee for the future of their regime, as well as the possibility of the United States in the future downsizing or eliminating its troop presence on the peninsula. That’s the sort of grand bargain, which if there was an element of diplomatic trust between Washington and Beijing, people could or should be discussing now.
FRAN KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast, it’s eighteen minutes to seven, our guest is former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Can I go to the ANZUS treaty? The Prime Minister said last week that if there is an attack on the US by North Korea, the ANZUS treaty would be invoked and Australia will come to the aid of the United States. Do you see that as an unconditional commitment by our Prime Minister to commit military forces if there is a war on the Korean Peninsula, and does an Australian Prime Minister have any other option, really, given the understanding of the ANZUS treaty?
KEVIN RUDD: My response to this statement when I first saw it over the weekend was simply, “Good God, have the conservatives in Australia learned nothing from the Iraq experience?” John Howard gave President Bush a blank check on Iraq. You never as an Australian Prime Minister, as an ally of the United States, give the Americans, before the event, a blank check. There are multiple scenarios which could arise from the Korean Peninsula, and we cannot predict which if any of them would occur. But for an Australian Prime Minister to say that we automatically would become militarily involved in the event of a North Korean attack, frankly, I think, is irresponsible in terms of our core national security interests.
FRAN KELLY: And whenever this sort of thing happens, we get to what is the definition and the understanding of the ANZUS treaty, I mean you’re a former Prime Minister, what’s your view? Julie Bishop, Foreign Minister, told us last week, that the ANZUS treaty only obliges us to consult with Washington if either country is attacked, but Article 4 does suggest something quite different, and Malcolm Turnbull has stated what many believe is the absolute truth, that it means that we are required if there is conflict in the Korean Peninsula to conjoin that. Is that not true?
KEVIN RUDD: The two relevant provisions of the ANZUS treaty are clear to us all. One relates to an attack on the metropolitan territory of either country, that’s either the United States or Australia. And then the related question within that is the particular status of the American unincorporated territory of Guam. And the second is an attack on the armed forces of either country in the Pacific area, where we would act to meet the common danger. Now those two provisions are clear cut. However, what any sensible Prime Minister would do, when you’re dealing with something as fundamental as military conflict, and therefore broader national security, is not simply say in advance, “there is a blank check here”. You would wait to see what practical scenarios unfolded, and the extent to which they actually complied with the terms of the treaty. The smart thing to do is simply to state, very plainly, that we uphold the ANZUS treaty, and in terms of any future actions by Australia under the terms of the ANZUS treaty, people around the international community should be confident in the fact that we Australians honor our treaty obligations full stop, without saying it means anything specific in a particular scenario of which there may be multiple variants.
FRAN KELLY: And just before I let you go, can I ask you finally, we are speaking with the Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne a little later and I will be asking him about this notion of deploying THAAD missile defense system. South Korea has been doing that, Japan is deploying the Patriot defense system. You’ve called for Australia to invest in some kind of ballistic missile shield defense technology. Considering the size of this country, though, is that practical? Feasible? Useful?
KEVIN RUDD: Well far be it for me to be verballed by anyone in the Australian media, but that’s happened again. What I said on the front page of Fairfax several weeks ago was simply this: “Australia should investigate the feasibility of such a deployment”. I’m acutely conscious of how broad the continent is. I’m acutely conscious of the nature of a missile trajectory once it leaves North Korean airspace and once it would arrive in Australia if it ever did. The bottom line is we would be not discharging our national security responsibilities if we weren’t examining technical and financial feasibility of such a proposal, given realities are changing in our region.
FRAN KELLY: Ok, but you’re not saying that Australia needs that, you’re conceding it may not be useful. Or accepting.
KEVIN RUDD: What I’m saying is given that we now face the potential of a North Korea nuclear threat, an ICBM in which Australia lies within range. And secondly, one thing we need to consider is what North Korea does in the future with any such capability. Do they use it for other forms of policy leverage short of any actual use?
FRAN KELLY: Ok.
KEVIN RUDD: Our responsibilities are to examine is it technically feasible, 2) how much would it cost, and 3) make a judgement based on those findings.
FRAN KELLY: Kevin Rudd thank you very much for joining us.
KEVIN RUDD: Good to be on the program with you Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister.